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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-36 – Henry D. Sokolski – Present Danger: Nuclear Power Plants in War

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-36 – Henry D. Sokolski – Present Danger: Nuclear Power Plants in War

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    After Russia’s unprecedented seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhya, the United States needs to adjust its military planning and policies to cope with hostile military forces’ targeting, seizure, and garrisoning of armed forces at large, operating nuclear plants and clarify its policies regarding possible US targeting of such plants. This podcast analyzes these concerns. It compares Russia’s assaults with previous strikes against research reactors and nonoperating nuclear plants in the Middle East and clarifies what new military measures and policies will be needed to cope with military operations against large, operating nuclear plants. US Army and Pentagon officials, as well as military and civilian staff, will discover ways to mitigate and reduce future military harm to civilians in war zones and understand the operational implications of military assaults on and seizures of civilian nuclear facilities.

    Read the article:

    Episode Transcript: “Present Danger: Nuclear Power Plants in War”

    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    You’re listening to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production focused on national security affairs.

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Henry D. Sokolski, author of “Present Danger: Nuclear Power Plants in War,” which was published in the winter 2022–23 issue of Parameters. Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues among policymakers, scholars, and the media. He teaches graduate-level classes on nuclear policy in Washington, DC. He’s also a senior fellow for nuclear security studies at the University of California in San Diego’s (University of California, San Diego’s) School of Global Policy and Strategy.

    Welcome back to Decisive Point, Henry. It’s great to chat with you again.

    (Henry D. Sokolski)

    Well, thank you for having me.


    Absolutely. My pleasure. In your article, you note that Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhya should inspire the US to adjust its military planning and policies when it comes to hostile military forces and operating nuclear plants. What about this situation inspired your article?


    Well, I think what got me going was something halfway around the globe in Taiwan. The election of the current president in 2016 came with a pledge to shut down their nuclear power plants. They had three and one partially constructed. And when I went and visited, it occurred to me that one of the strongest arguments in support of the government’s position was not being made, and that was that these plants were targets, and . . . uh, the more I looked into that, the more I discovered that, indeed, the Chinese were targeting those plants and planning to target them and that the radiation releases, depending on the time of the year, could be quite remarkable and devastating. And I . . . I worked that, and then I started looking around the world.

    By the time Zaporizhzhya occurred, I was ready. So that was six years of research that I had been doing on this topic and . . . and problems there.


    So this isn’t the first nuclear plant to be attacked. How is this situation different from other attacks?


    Well, it’s different in several ways. First of all, this is the first nuclear power plant to be attacked . . . uh, we have lots of history in the Middle East of plants being attacked, but they either weren’t operating, or they weren’t power plants. Power plants are big. Power plants present radiological release dangers that are significantly higher than small research or production reactors. That’s one difference.

    I think, in addition, attack was not seized by the enemy. We have Russians running . . . trying to run this plant and trying to steal it. That had never happened ever before. Also, we’ve never had strikes against plants with anything akin to drones that are precise. All the attacks before were done by, you know, gravity bombs or by planes flying over the target or inaccurate missiles. Why does that matter? With accurate strikes, you can pick specific things, rather than decimating the whole plant. And that’s exactly what’s been going on at Zaporizhzhya, and it is unprecedented. Before, it was all or nothing at all in the way of an attack.

    Yet another way in which the strikes against reactors in the Middle East really don’t tell a tale similar to what’s going on at Zaporizhzhya is none of those plants in the Middle East were surrounded by cities or population. I mean, Zaporizhzhya, Oblast has 1.7 million people living there. Now, admittedly, there are far fewer now. But you’re talking about hundreds of thousands still, and the ability of a population to protect itself against radiation if one of these plants produces a massive release is pretty limited. And that’s something folks striking reactors in the Middle East really did not have to worry about or think about much.

    And then, finally, none of the reactors previously targeted in the Middle East were adjacent to treaty parties to a security pact with the United States, whereas you have NATO nations—Japan, South Korea—located close to or having . . . themselves have reactors. And that’s important because in the case of, uh, Zaporizhzhya, if radiation wafts over into NATO territory, it’s not clear what that will or will not trigger in the way of a response, and that’s totally different and unprecedented as well.


    You had some specific recommendations for the Pentagon. Will you share those with us?


    Sure. There are three. The Pentagon needs to start looking at these plants in war zones as stationary, potential, slow-burning, radiologically dispersing nuclear weapons instead of simply another portion of the civilian infrastructure. If they look at them that way, then the deterrents and security alliance implications of waging war anywhere near these plants has to be thought out. That includes in Europe, the Middle East, and in Asia. And they . . . they have to start asking what they’re going to do under different circumstances and what, if anything, they are going to plan around themselves. Are we going to strike these plants? Hope not, but, you know, right now, that’s an open question. They need to close that question in some fashion or another by doing some planning.

    The second thing that they need to do is they have to take a more active role in the US nuclear export license application process. They need to be giving their view as to how vulnerable proposed plants that are going to be built by the United States, supposedly—again in Ukraine, in Poland, and in Romania, to say nothing of other places in the Middle East—how vulnerable they would be to being attacked. They have a statutory requirement to do this already. I don’t think they are doing enough to take that statutory requirement seriously. Now they have cause to. I think in addition, they have their own military reactor program that they claim they’re going to base overseas, so they have a real stake in trying to be clear about what their thinking is.

    And then, finally, the department needs to clarify and strengthen its current guidance with regard to targeting nuclear plants in a war. We are signatories to a protocol in the Geneva Convention (Geneva Conventions) that strongly discourages targeting electrical power-generating plants. And when you take a look at how the military interprets this obligation, the Pentagon ultimately comes down on the side of freedom of action, such that if a commander in the field thinks it’s important to hit a nuclear power plant, he’s given authority to do it. I think that may need to be reexamined.

    And then, the presumption against hitting these things is much stronger in the protocol that we’ve signed than what the guidance and interpretation of that protocol says. I think that that is an invitation for mischief. We are the . . . perhaps amongst the only country other than Russia that hasn’t ratified this agreement. Now, Russia pulled out of it, but even China and North Korea have ratified the darned thing. All of our allies have, so we need to consider how we interpret this. I’m not saying we need to ratify it, but I think we need to come to terms that it’s time to take another look after Zaporizhzhya on how we view that obligation.


    I so wish we had more time. There’s so much to unpack here. I just want to thank you, though, for sharing your time and for sharing your insight. It’s always a treat when I get to talk with you. Thanks, Henry.


    Well, thank you.


    To read more about nuclear power plants and more, visit Look for volume 52, issue four.

    If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more, you can find us on any major podcast platform.

    Author information: Henry D. Sokolski is the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues among policymakers, scholars, and the media. He teaches graduate-level classes on nuclear policy in Washington, D.C. He is also a Senior Fellow for Nuclear Security Studies at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.



    Date Taken: 10.28.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:08
    Category: Newscasts
    Audio ID: 74950
    Filename: 2306/DOD_109718212.mp3
    Length: 00:08:37
    Artist US Army War College Press
    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 36
    Year 2022
    Genre Podcast
    Location: US

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