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State Department official says Russia's activities in Zaporizhzhia are irresponsible


U.N. nuclear inspectors are in Ukraine trying to assess damage at Europe's largest nuclear power plant. The Zaporizhzhia plant is on the front lines of the war and now controlled by Russia. Nuclear facilities like that one should be off limits during conflict. But the laws of war aren't clear on this point. And in this case, diplomats are struggling to figure out ways to pressure the Russians to back off. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A top State Department official, Bonnie Jenkins, says Russia has been engaging in what she calls irresponsible behavior for a nuclear weapons state. And she wants to see Russia return the Zaporizhzhia power plant to Ukrainian control.

BONNIE JENKINS: Nowhere in the history of this world has a nuclear power plant become a part of a combat zone. So this really has to stop immediately.

KELEMEN: In recent decades, the U.S. and Israel have carried out airstrikes on unfinished nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria. But in this case, Russia has seized control of a working civilian nuclear power plant as part of its invasion of Ukraine. And nuclear experts like Henry Sokolski are sounding the alarm.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: This is a curtain raiser on future problem sets that we will encounter with North Korea targeting possibly reactors in South Korea. It may well be that China is serious about their training manuals that they had written up in 2015 that talked about the need to be ready to target reactors in Taiwan.

KELEMEN: There are international norms against this. The 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Convention doesn't exactly prohibit attacks on nuclear facilities. But signatories are supposed to avoid civilian installations that contain, quote, "dangerous forces" like radiation. But that leaves too much wiggle room, and it's hard to enforce, says George Moore, a scientist in residence at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

GEORGE MOORE: I hope once Ukraine gets somehow settled that, you know, maybe cooler heads will prevail, and they will get an international treaty on this. But then going back to your other question, who would enforce it if it's broken? It's sad to say, but, you know, all international treaties are only as good as the commitment of the countries to abide by them.

KELEMEN: The Russians don't seem at all moved by the international condemnation, and both sides have accused each other of shelling the plant. Ukraine and many others point out that Russia has no right to be there. As for the U.S., it is not a party to that protocol in the Geneva Convention. And Sokolski, who runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says that undercuts U.S. diplomacy.

SOKOLSKI: Our credibility in this topic here is akin to the proverbial lecture about temperance from a bar stool (laughter), and I would think it would be wise for us to tighten up our act.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. could start by bringing U.S. military guidelines closer in line with the additional protocol. And the U.S. could work within international organizations, like the IAEA, to censure Russia's record on nuclear safety.

SOKOLSKI: They do not, by any stretch of the imagination, want to be put it all in the corner with a dunce cap on safety when they're trying to export reactors.

KELEMEN: Much will depend on what International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors report back to Vienna after their visit to Ukraine.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.