Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues to escalate. Civilians have been put at risk, and so too have Ukraine's nuclear power plants. On early Friday, Russian forces began shelling Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv declared the attack on Europe's biggest nuclear power plant a war crime. "It is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant," the embassy wrote in a tweet. "Putin's shelling of Europe's largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further."
The Geneva Convention's Article 56 does indeed list attacking nuclear power plants as a war crime. "Works and installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population," the article says, noting that an attack on a power plant is only allowable "if it provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support." (Zaporizhzhia decidedly does not.)
The plant, which is located about 400 miles southeast of Kyiv, caught fire after Russian forces attacked it. Ukraine's Ministry of Energy said in a Facebook post that "Ukraine’s emergency services were not allowed to put out the fire in time. There are verbal reports of a shooting of a member of a fire brigade by the Russian occupying forces. Several employees of the nuclear station were injured." By Friday afternoon local time, though, the fire had been brought under control, with fire brigades reportedly operating at gunpoint.
The fight over Zaporizhzhia follows a Russian assault to take Chernobyl near the start of the country's assault on Ukraine. Multiple Ukrainian officials said that the shelling at Zaporizhzhia could trigger another Chernobyl, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said an explosion at Zaporizhzhia could equal "six Chernobyls."
But through officials invoked Chernobyl, experts have pointed to a number of differences between Zaporizhzhia and the site of a Cold War nuclear catastrophe, including multiple fail-safe mechanisms. Instead, the main risks are that Russia will now be able to cut off a major power source for Ukrainians. That's cold comfort, though.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said at a press conference following the fire at Zaporizhzhia. “Unfortunately, here we are in completely uncharted waters.”