In Ukraine, the world confronts two plausible nuclear catastrophes: a nuclear power accident and Russian use of nuclear weapons. The first risk nearly materialized recently with the fire at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant caused by a Russian projectile, an incident that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called a “close call.” Careless Russian military actions in and around other Ukrainian nuclear installations (active power plants, nuclear waste repositories, and the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear site) are also a cause for concern. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear saber rattling to deter outside interference in the conflict makes clear the second risk of nuclear use or even a broader nuclear confrontation. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s warning about the prospects of a nuclear dystopia further illustrate the fraught risks inherent in the current situation.
The environmental and humanitarian effects of either potential catastrophe would be severe, but the political fallout would also spread far beyond Ukraine. At stake is the global system to prevent exactly these types of dangers. Russia’s actions lay bare the lack of clear rules or standards for safely treating nuclear facilities and materials in times of war and the broader repercussions of nuclear saber rattling for both conflict escalation and proliferation. These actions threaten to intensify the outcry in favor of disarmament, incentivize proliferation, and further undermine shaky public confidence in nuclear power. This third effect could derail the plans of many countries to use nuclear power at least transitionally to help counter climate change.
Despite the tragedy in Ukraine, these stark global risks have given countries good reason to take immediate steps to avert nuclear catastrophe by developing a new Nuclear Responsibility Regime that diminishes these dangers and leverages the inherent benefits of nuclear energy.
Rebuilding international cooperation to address these challenges must realistically be predicated on two premises. First, the countries who already possess nuclear weapons will not relinquish them any time soon. Second, the jolt given by the Ukrainian crises to energy security coupled with the need to diminish the world’s carbon footprint to avert further global warming may well lead many countries to build nuclear power plants.
To stand any chance of getting quick traction, any nuclear responsibility initiative must therefore be framed in terms that a wide range of actors could quickly endorse, notwithstanding visceral differences on both the broader nuclear agenda and geopolitics. It must appeal to states with and without nuclear weapons, including those wishing to rid the world of them. It should also resonate both with those who support nuclear power if only as a transitional technology to provide energy security and address global warming, and with those who would rather dispense with nuclear power forthwith.
With these constraints in mind, a new Nuclear Responsibility Regime should be built around five principles that all nuclear stakeholders ought to quickly endorse, states and nuclear industry actors alike. These principles may seem eclectic and not intimately connected, but the point is to address the potential for nuclear catastrophe in a more holistic way.
First, countries with nuclear weapons should go beyond reaffirming their belief that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They should also commit (beyond their traditional UN negative security assurances) never ever to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states without such weapons and go further by explicitly affirming their determination never to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances apart from a genuine last resort.
Second, states with nuclear energy technology and those seeking to use nuclear energy should commit to ensuring that the construction, operation, and dismantlement of power plants be carried out in strict accordance with all pertinent international nuclear conventions and agreements, and in cooperation with the IAEA and industry peer groups such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators.
Third, private and state-owned nuclear enterprises involved in all phases of the nuclear lifecycle should abide by the best practices associated with the international nuclear conventions and agreements and incorporate compliance with these practices into their decisionmaking on export and support contracts. Governments should also encourage industry partners to alert both their national authorities and the IAEA whenever they detect anomalies in the employment of the nuclear technologies they supply that deviate from sound practices of peaceful nuclear uses.
Fourth, all UN members should fill the gaps in international law pertaining to attacks on nuclear facilities by explicitly pledging to treat nuclear power plants and related facilities as militarily untouchable targets and to guarantee their safekeeping, operating, and monitoring during conflict. They should further endorse the principle that any force occupying nuclear facilities thereby assumes responsibility for the reliable operation and safety of these facilities and liability for any damage.
Finally, fifth, states seeking to use advanced technologies that involve nuclear weapon materials and that evoke safety, security, and nonproliferation concerns—including for activities such as naval operations or space propulsion—should voluntarily agree to enhanced IAEA monitoring of these activities. Such monitoring could address international concerns and warn states when concerns go unaddressed.
Individually, securing agreement on each of these elements would be a fraught exercise given today’s international political environment. However, as a package it may be easier to accommodate the varied interests of more states in a Nuclear Responsibility Regime.
While rapid unilateral pledges to these principles would clearly be welcome, the most expedient international path to anchor the elements of a nuclear responsibility initiative along these lines would be through existing institutions and forums. An early opportunity to embark on such a path would be in August 2022, when the 191 member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gather in New York for a review conference. Nuclear-weapon states in particular should use that venue to affirm unequivocally the first principle about nuclear use.
In addition, leading states and their nuclear industries should work to package these commitments into a cohesive initiative. The October 2022 G20 summit in Indonesia would be an appropriate forum for doing so, since most of the states with nuclear weapons are G20 members, while the majority of G20 states possess nuclear power plants or plan to build them. Japan, which intimately knows the horrors of both nuclear weapons and nuclear accidents, is the current chair and could well lead efforts to adopt a Nuclear Responsibility Regime.
While it is difficult to imagine reaching an agreement with Russia or China on a broad agenda under the present circumstances, this proposal is consciously formulated in terms that are not adversarial to either of them and that serve interests they should hold dear. Mutual doubts in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington about whether each is acting in good faith and would uphold such commitments make it all the more important to restore some trust in the capacity of the international community to defuse critical nuclear risks. This agenda would make for an important start. Even if a global agreement on nuclear responsibility could not prevent every route to nuclear catastrophe, it would ideally give pause to those contemplating risky behavior and at least create a higher and more uniform standard against which to judge behavior.
With luck, the world may yet avoid a nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine. A Nuclear Responsibility Regime could help avert similar close calls and rebuild global consensus to diminish incentives for proliferation, lower prospects of nuclear crises, and enhance trust in the safety and security of nuclear power that would make its role in mitigating climate change sustainable.