Are Attacks on Nuclear Plants Legal under International Law?

Paragraph 2 suggests that a nuclear power plant could become an objective “if it provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support […]”

However, this is of course a matter of interpretation. In times of war, almost all nuclear power plants will provide electricity to civilians as well as to the military. It is hard to separate the two. But does this entail a “significant and direct support of military operations?” Thus, it is up to the discretion of the observer to evaluate whether a nuclear power plant is a legitimate military target or not.

It is also difficult to prove that an attack is “the only feasible way to terminate” support for acts of war. A potential aggressor has to deliberate and observe the principle of proportionality: Does the military value clearly prevail? What impact would my actions have on the civilian population? And would there not be a less grave means of rendering a nuclear power plant inoperable? Such as destroying power lines so that electricity can no longer be supplied — without entailing the risk of causing radiation? That said, for a population in winter, a power supply disruption can also be grave.

Civilian Population Must Be Protected
But even if circumstances do justify an attack, the Additional Protocol states in paragraph 3 that in all cases “the civilian population […] shall remain entitled to all the protection accorded them by international law.” A warring party would have to do everything possible to protect civilians from radiation, for example, by evacuating the surrounding areas before launching an attack on a plant.

Paragraph 5 is also relevant to Zaporizhzhya: “The Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to avoid locating any military objectives in the vicinity of the works or installations mentioned in paragraph 1.” Ukraine accuses Russia of hunkering down at the power plant, effectively using it as a shield to avoid Ukrainian shelling. While Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-backed local official, claimed that Ukraine had launched artillery strikes using US-made howitzers near the power plant and in residential areas.

Qualifying the restrictions, however, the Additional Protocol also states: “Nevertheless, installations erected for the sole purpose of defending the protected works or installations from attack are permissible and shall not themselves be made the object of attack.” Russia will surely depict its military as only acting defensively.

In conclusion: The states that have signed the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols — and that includes Russia and Ukraine — have set a high bar for attacks on nuclear power plants. But they are not ruled out entirely, even if the circumstances, in which they are permitted, are very narrowly defined.

But in practice Article 56 of the Additional Protocol (1) is limited. It remains a matter of interpretation as to whether circumstances allow for a concrete case. Moreover, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has a veto and can prevent any attempts by the body to sanction it for violating international law.

Christoph Hasselbach is an editor at DW. This article is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).