UKRAINE WARAre Attacks on Nuclear Plants Legal under International Law?

By Christoph Hasselbach

Published 19 August 2022

As fears rise that there could be a nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant, DW looks at the Geneva Conventions, to which both Russia and Ukraine are signatories. Targeting nuclear plants is not actually banned.

Since March, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine has been under Russian occupation. Since late July, the largest nuclear plant in Europe has been shelled repeatedly, with Kyiv and Moscow blaming each other for the attacks. This has sparked fears of a nuclear disaster. Last week, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the situation without getting any closer to a solution.

It is not the first time in this war that the question of nuclear safety and security has been raised. This is not only about the potential use of nuclear weapons — Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly expressed this thought — but also about nuclear power stations being used as military targets.

Geneva Conventions Regulate Conduct of War
What does international law say about this? The 1949 Geneva Convention and its subsequent Additional Protocols regulate the conduct of armed conflict and seek to limit its effects. Article 56 of the Additional Protocol (1) of 1977 pertains to the “Protection of works and installations containing dangerous forces” and explicitly mentions “dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations.”

Since the Russian Federation and Ukraine are both parties to the agreement and have not expressed reservations about the Additional Protocol (1), the regulations apply to both states.

And they are surprisingly detailed. In principle, according to paragraph 1, nuclear power plants “shall not be made the object of attack, even when these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” Radioactivity is certainly what is meant here.

The issue here is one of the principles of international humanitarian law as consolidated by the Geneva Conventions: The difference between military and civilian targets. These provide for the “general protection of civilian objects, restricting attacks to military objectives.”

Nuclear Power Stations Are Not Off-Limits
But paragraph 1 of the Additional Protocol (1) does not state that nuclear power plants are always off-limits, only to the extent that an attack “may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” In other words, if it is not expected to cause “severe losses among the civilian population,” then it might be permitted under certain circumstances.