EmoryBusiness.com shares this timely Op-Ed written by Goizueta Assistant Professor of Finance Tetyana Balyuk, Tania Babina (Columbia University), Anastassia Fedyk (UC Berkeley), and Yuriy Gorodnichenko (UC Berkeley).

The brutal attack of Putin’s army on Ukraine is escalating as we breathe. Yet, the vital act of breathing has been endangered for millions of people after yesterday’s strikes by the Russian military at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). People across Europe and the world sat on the edge of their seats watching this unfold. Hours later, the threat was contained—this time. In an alternative universe, the catastrophe would have been multiple times more dangerous than that of the Chornobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. And in our actual universe, that of Russia’s continuing escalation, the threat remains that more damage will be inflicted on Ukraine’s nuclear plants, and next time might not be contained. Closing the Ukrainian sky or at least providing Ukraine with cutting-edge anti-missile systems such as the Patriot system would protect not only the lives of innocent civilians, including children, from airstrikes but also all of Europe from explosions in Ukraine’s NPPs.

Tetyana Balyuk

The Zaporizhzhia NPP is one of the 10 largest nuclear plants in the world and the largest one in Europe. It has six power-generating units (6 x 1,000 MW) and a spent nuclear storage facility. In addition to the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Ukraine operates nine more nuclear power units (15 in total). For comparison, the Chernobyl NPP had only four units, one of which blew up in 1986. Russian military occupant forces have already captured the Chornobyl NPP and are deploying their weapons in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Despite the brave people of Enerhodar coming out to prevent the offensive on the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the plant has now also been captured.

These actions by the occupant are an act of international terrorism. There is a very real threat of the release of radioactive materials if the cooling systems at Ukrainian NPPs are destroyed resulting in meltdowns. This would pollute not only Ukrainian land but also that of European countries, with vast economic consequences for Europe and spillovers to the U.S. through trade with the European Union. The U.S. had 491.26 billion U.S. dollars in imports from the EU in 2021.

Even if Ukrainian NPPs withstand the bombing, it is highly likely that Russian military will use the territory of the NPPs to place their weapons and create additional launching sites for their missiles. And Ukrainians will then have their hands tied, unable to destroy these weapons because any attempt would mean risking nuclear disaster. In the biblical story of King Solomon’s Judgment, the true mother gave up her baby to the offender instead of agreeing to split the child in half. In a similar vein, the Ukrainian people who love their country dearly would find it hard to strike back at NPP sites.

What can be done to de-escalate the explicit nuclear threat from the Russian takeover of Ukrainian NPPs? A powerful response by the U.S. and other NATO countries to establish a no-fly zone above Ukraine would significantly reduce the risk of Ukrainian NPPs being hit, captured, and used by the Russian military as missile launch sites and as bargaining chips against Ukraine. Deploying the U.S. Patriot (MIM-104) missile defense system in Ukraine would achieve a similar goal without the direct involvement of NATO. The system was effectively deployed to protect civilians and cities across the world, including in Israel. It is time now to deploy it in Ukraine to defend Kyiv, to protect civilians, and to shield nuclear power plants.

Learn more about Tetyana Balyuk.