“There can be no question that the actions of Russia under Vladimir Putin put the country on the side of autocracy and repression. But the West should be clear-eyed about the ways that Ukraine is, and isn’t, living up to its end of the democracy-and-liberty formulation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been hailed as a classical liberal hero, the inspirational leader who captured the world’s attention with a series of video messages immediately following the Russian invasion in which he celebrated those who had taken up arms to repel the attack and pleaded with foreign governments to lend a hand. But Zelenskyy has not merely urged his fellow countrymen to follow his lead. With the declaration of martial law in February came a prohibition on male citizens aged 18–60 leaving the country. Then in March, the government combined the country’s national TV stations into a single state-approved broadcast and suspended 11 opposition political parties it described as “pro-Russian.”
With Ukraine scrambling to defend itself against Putin’s lawlessness, the impulse to shut down anyone with Russian sympathies is understandable. But to act on that impulse is to inflict punishment on Ukrainian citizens, including those who voted for the Opposition Platform for Life, which held about 10 percent of seats in Ukraine’s parliament and was the main party challenging Zelenskyy before he disbanded its activities. Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking population, and those who have generally favored maintaining close ties with Russia rather than pursuing greater integration with the European Union have a right to their views, and to representation in government, even at a time of war.
Meanwhile, all Ukrainians have a right to share and access information. There was a disconcerting irony in Biden identifying the country as a combatant on the side of free speech and freedom of the press at the same time its president was clamping down on television stations’ ability to present the news to their viewers as they think appropriate. At least one outlet with ties to a Zelenskyy rival has been excluded from broadcasting on the new national channel, reported NPR this month. Zelenskyy’s office defended the consolidation, reported Reuters at the time, by “citing the importance of a ‘unified information policy,'” a phrase that should be chilling to anyone who values free expression.”
“A Putin victory would mean the empowerment of a brutal regime committed to wiping out Ukraine’s culture and civil society. Inside a Russian-controlled Ukraine, millions would need to submerge their ethnolinguistic identity, which has been deepening its roots over the 30 years since Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union. For millions of Ukrainians, Russian rule would therefore create the stark choice of cleansing themselves of their ethnicity or being ethnically cleansed. A Russian victory would further mean that the initial exodus of six million Ukrainians would be followed into Europe and elsewhere by the flight of many additional millions for whom life is intolerable.
This puts into clear relief the stakes in Ukraine’s courageous struggle against Putin’s Russia. It is the reason why the West’s commitment to arming Ukraine must not flag. Failure to support Ukraine and pressure Russia would not only permit nascent genocidal practices, deepening a mass humanitarian and human rights horror; It would embolden an aggressive, increasingly repressive Russia to menace other neighboring states. We cannot allow this to pass.”
“While there are many things that could go wrong at Zaporizhzhia, “the likelihood of an intentional attack on the [plant] that leads to a major nuclear disaster is low,” Ivanka Barzashka, founder and co-director of the King’s Wargaming Network at King’s College London, told Vox via email. “Moscow would have a lot to lose and nothing to gain from such an outcome, given the reactor’s proximity to Russian forces and population.” Furthermore, the plant is built to withstand direct attacks, as it’s constructed with reinforced concrete.
The real risks to the facility would more likely be due to human error, accidental shelling, or a lack of electricity to cool the nuclear material, according to Matthew Bunn, the James R. Schlesinger professor of the practice of energy, national security, and foreign policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“The biggest concern is [the] cooling of a nuclear power plant,” Bunn told Vox. “In general, to avoid an accident at a nuclear power plant, you need to keep the reactor core under water, and the spent fuel and the spent fuel pool under water so they’re continuously cooled.” That cooling process requires electricity, which now comes from Ukraine’s external power grid. The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, for example, occurred because of a tsunami which cut off-site electricity to the plant and destroyed the generators, making it impossible to cool the facility even though the reactor had undergone emergency shutdown.
However, as Bunn told Vox, a number of those lines have already been cut, increasing the possibility that Zaporizhzhia might have to rely on diesel-powered generators to support the cooling process. It’s unclear how much fuel those generators have, given that Russian forces have reportedly been siphoning off the fuel for their own purposes, Bunn said. “Diesel’s a highly sought commodity in any war zone,” he said. “There are supposed to be days of diesel at the site; we don’t know whether that’s still true or not.” The Ukrainian nuclear agency Energoatom said on Friday that Russian forces were seeking diesel to fuel the generators in case of power loss, according to Reuters.
In a worst-case scenario, the plant could lose power and the pumps circulating water to cool the reactor core and spent fuel pool would shut down. The heat that the reactor core and the spent material generate would then boil the surrounding water until it evaporates, exposing the reactor core “within hours,” Bunn said. “The fuel would then start to melt. Even if you shut the reactor down, some people refer to it as ‘the fire that doesn’t go out’ — the fuel still generates a lot of heat from the radioactive decay of the split atoms, what are called the fission products, in the fuel.”
However, a spent fuel fire — what Bunn referred to as the “very very worst case” — is unlikely given that there’s just not as much of it at Zaporizhzhia as there are at other sites; that’s because Zaporizhzhia used to send spent fuel to Russia for storage and reprocessing there. “That really only happens when you have fuel that’s pretty closely packed and really hot, having been released from the reactor fairly recently,” he said.
Even if the electricity supply holds, shelling could damage the facility, causing water to leak out of the plant and upsetting the cooling process. Alarmingly, the ongoing shelling has already done damage to the plant — including near a substation which prompted one of only two operating power lines to shut down on August 5.
As Bunn told Vox, the human element is critical in maintaining the plant’s safety. “The Ukrainian operators have been operating essentially at Russian gunpoint for months,” Bunn said. “[They are under] enormous psychological stress; many of them have sent their families away, they’re exhausted. Under those conditions, the possibility of human error in operating the plant is ever-present. They have been doing a heroic job, but people under stress make mistakes.”
Operators at the plant who have been able to speak to outside sources paint a harrowing picture. “What is happening is horrific and beyond common sense and morality,” plant staff wrote in a Telegram channel, according to the BBC. “The psychological situation is difficult,” a worker called Svitlana told the BBC. “Soldiers are walking everywhere with weapons and everyone is actually kept at gunpoint.””