International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is urging governments attending the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York to call for a ban on military attacks on nuclear installations. Obstacles to access for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine must be overcome.

“Waging war in a country with operational nuclear reactors is previously unknown and breaks a taboo,” says Dr. Angelika Claussen, IPPNW Vice-President for Europe. “With every day that the war in Ukraine continues, the probability increases that a nuclear disaster can occur. That is why we are urging NPT states parties to declare that military attacks on nuclear installations should be banned.”

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was once again fired upon during Sunday night. Both Ukraine and Russia blame the other for the attack. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that any attack on nuclear power plants is “suidical.” The IAEA has been trying unsuccessfully to gain access to the reactor. At the weekend the IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi warned of the danger of a nuclear disaster that threatens public health and the environment in Ukraine and neighbouring countries and spoke to the UN Security Council about the need for access to the plant.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in East Ukraine is the largest in Europe with six reactor blocks, three of which have been shut down, and a capacity of 5700 MW. It has been under Russian control since the beginning of March. On March 2, 2022, the plant came under fire from Russian troops during fighting and a fire broke out in a training centre. Following artillery fire, damage was reported in reactor block 1 and at least two blasts took place in the area for dry storage of spent fuel rods. Radioactivity was not released. Videos from inside the plant show that Ukrainian workers tried to warn Russian soldiers of the dangers associated with their actions.

There are 15 operational reactor blocks in four sites in Ukraine. They provide 50% of the electricity needed in the country. Nuclear power plants are endangered when the electricity supply is cut off by armed combat or sabotage. Cyber attacks also present an immense danger. Cooling in nuclear power plants is dependent on a continuous power supply, even when the plant is not operational.

Up until now, there are no clear rules under international law on safe distances or zones around nuclear power plants. IPPNW therefore calls on the international community—especially given the danger in Ukraine—to fill this legal gap. It is urgently necessary that Russian troops pull back from nuclear installations and these need to be declared demilitarised zones in order to protect civilians.

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