Ukraine’s Nuclear Shadow: National Security Implications for NATO and the UK

Dr Bahram Ghiassee

This research paper addresses the national security implications of the potential and actual nuclear and radiological events in Ukraine for the UK and the European members of NATO.

The armed conflict, over the past 20 months, has had significant humanitarian, economic, and environmental impacts in Ukraine, and profound energy security and national security implications for the country, NATO, and the UK.

The conflict, from the very outset, has been fought under the long shadow of nuclear weapons. The prolongation and escalation of the conflict, the supply of advanced weapons systems by the West, and the failure of the Kremlin to achieve its military objectives might be used as justification by Russia to deploy its ‘battlefield’ tactical nuclear weapons, with catastrophic consequences. In this context, the paper discusses the risks posed.

The paper also assesses the unprecedented aerial attacks by Russian forces on nuclear and radiological facilities, and their occupation, which have severely undermined safety and security at these facilities. Moreover, the paper examines the impact of Russian attacks on the physical integrity of these facilities, and the significant increase in risks associated with nuclear accidents, loss of proliferation-sensitive nuclear materials, and unauthorised access to radioactive substances which could be used for malicious purposes.

The paper reiterates that a major nuclear accident could have significant implications for Ukraine, Europe, and the UK. The paper also notes that equally alarming is the prospect of non-State actors – including proxy groups acting for hostile States, terrorists, and organised crime syndicates – acquiring small quantities of radioactive substances. Such materials could be the subject of illicit transnational trafficking, and be used to construct radiological “dirty bombs”, thus presenting a significant risk to major cities across Europe, the UK, and the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region.

The research paper advocates a number of policy recommendations, as noted below:

1. The UK and NATO to utilise the diplomatic and political conduits available to de-escalate the dangerous nuclear rhetoric, the spectre of which is looming over Europe.

2. The UK and NATO to lend their diplomatic, political, and financial support to the IAEA in establishing a ‘nuclear safety and security protection zone’ around the NPPs in Ukraine.

3. The land and maritime borders and crossings in the UK and Europe be strengthened, and radiation detection devices be deployed widely, to prevent illicit transnational trafficking of radioactive substances and sources, and mitigate risks posed by radiological terrorism.

4. A re-assessment of national security policies & strategies in relation to prevention, detection, emergency preparedness, and response to nuclear and radiological events be implemented.

5. The UK and NATO to initiate the drafting and adoption of an international legal instrument in relation to the safety and security of nuclear and radiological facilities during armed conflict.

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