Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
"I was worried, I am worried, I will be worried, for as long as we don't have a stabilized situation in a permanent manner," Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters last week after assessing Ukraine's imperiled Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power plant.
On Monday, he amplified that message, saying, "We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place." To avoid such an outcome, the IAEA rightly called for a "special safety and security zone" around the plant.
Grossi was speaking for himself and his United Nations agency, but the rest of the world should share his worry and heed his warning. The risk of a nuclear catastrophe is real, and Grossi indicated that the plant had already been breached "several times" by shelling that he deemed "unacceptable."
The latest incident came Sept. 4 when a fire from shelling caused the plant to be disconnected from Ukraine's national power grid — just days after Grossi led a 14-person delegation through the war zone to the plant in southeastern Ukraine, a territory now in Russian hands as part of the illegal, inhumane invasion of its sovereign neighbor.
Indeed, while each side has traded blame along with fire, one side is at fault: Russia. Its invasion started this war and has increased the existential threat not just to Ukraine but to its own citizens and portions of Europe by creating the conditions where a nuclear facility is at risk.
Russia is using Zaporizhzhia as a "nuclear weapon," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told ABC News in an interview. "It means the biggest danger in Europe," he said, comparing the catastrophic potential to "six Chernobyls."
It's part of a pernicious expansion of the concept of nuclear security: Not only does the non-proliferating nation of Ukraine face risks from nuclear superpower Russia, but Ukraine's peaceful use of nuclear power is also now jeopardized by Russia's recklessness.
That undermines the intent of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which gives everyone "the right to the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy, which essentially means nuclear energy," Mark Bell, an associate professor of political science whose expertise includes nuclear proliferation issues, told an editorial writer.
However, as with other Ukrainian rights, Russia has taken this away. And it may deepen the damage if it redirects Zaporizhzhia's energy from Ukraine's electrical grid to Russia's. Such a crime would "fit with the Russian effort to sort of strangle the eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbas region, just slowly grind it down," Mitchel Wallerstein, a nonresident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told an editorial writer.
It's not just eastern Ukraine and not just since the invasion that Moscow has tried to grind Ukraine. Not forgotten in Kyiv and other capitals around the world is Russia abrogating a 1994 pact between Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and United Kingdom that offered security assurances in exchange for Ukraine to relinquish its significant Soviet-era nuclear weapon stockpile and ascend to the NPT. The deal, known as the Budapest Memorandum, "is obviously not worth the paper it was written on at this point," Bell said.
That fact has and will likely give other nations pause as they consider developing nuclear weapons, thus amplifying the pernicious impact of Russia's invasion. There may also be other harmful effects, especially since many nations are considering commissioning more nuclear-power plants in response to the longer-term climate crisis and the more immediate energy and economic crisis created by Russia's invasion. The weaponization of Zaporizhzhia could mean even further delay in the urgent need to lower carbon emissions and dependency on Russian energy.
Regarding "any serious effort to substantially decarbonize electricity generation, it's hard to see how you can really do that in a serious way without nuclear power playing a significant role in that, and this will inevitably involve serious thinking about the risks of that," Bell said.
The overall impact of Russia's invasion and its imperiling of Europe's biggest nuclear power plant cannot be overstated. Nor can the imperative to keep Russia from dictating these terms. The West must maintain, if not increase, its political, economic and military support of Ukraine so it can resist and ultimately reverse Russia's aggression.