Russian attack on nuclear plant should be declared a war crime, Adi Roche says

Chernobyl Children International chief urges Government to lobby international court

Russian shelling of Europe's largest nuclear power plant should be declared a war crime, chief executive of Chernobyl Children International (CCI) Adi Roche has said.

The Zaporizhzhia plant was attacked and taken over by Russian forces on Friday. A fire started at the plant after it was shelled, sparking fears of a spike in radiation.

However, the UN’s nuclear watchdog said radiation levels and the safety of reactors were not affected.

Adi Roche urged the Irish Government to lobby the International Court of Justice at The Hague to "immediately declare a new protocol to the Hague Convention on the conduct of war that any attack on a nuclear facility be declared a major war crime with maximum penalties".


“I urge that all nuclear facilities be deemed a no-war zone,” she said.

The US Embassy in Kyiv called the attack a “war crime” which “takes [Putin’s] reign of terror one step further”.

Nearly 36 years after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ukrainians are fighting to prevent another potentially “catastrophic” disaster due to the Russian military’s capture of the nuclear facility.

A team of eminent scientists at the Chernobyl exclusion zone wrote of their fears on Thursday in an email to CCI, a non-profit that works with children and communities that continue to be affected by the outcome of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

The letter, seen by The Irish Times, said the scientists had a “deep concern for the elevated levels of radioactivity because of the Chernobyl takeover and the damage it can have, particularly on the children’s health”.

They were “issuing a warning so that the situation is taken into account and that a humanitarian corridor is created”.

The scientists were remaining there to continue their research and asked that CCI highlight the issue and “help these people suffering from radioactive effects and the situation they find themselves in as a result of hostilities.”

Ms Roche said the risks at Chernobyl were "incalculable".

"We're talking about catastrophic consequences. If they start to use that zone as a battleground, the Russians have the potential to hold Ukraine and Europe to ransom," she said.

Exclusion zone

The Chernobyl exclusion zone has vast silos of nuclear waste and water, which are highly dangerous and volatile.

There are also hundreds of shallow “nuclear graves”, which are scattered throughout the exclusion zone, holding the contents of thousands of houses, machinery, buses and trucks, all of which have been buried there to keep the radiation underground.

Should a bomb, missile, a shot-down plane or helicopter crash into this area, the consequences “could be disastrous,” Ms Roche said.

CCI are in touch daily with their Ukrainian colleagues in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv.

Just in the past weeks, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, CCI accelerated the visit of a heart surgery team to Lviv to deliver life-saving operations on babies and children there.

A decision was made to bring the mission forward by five months, Ms Roche said, to help children who are suffering from a range of heart defects, including the life-threatening condition called “Chernobyl heart”.

The lives of 30 children were saved and the surgical team were safely evacuated just as the danger came to a head.

CCI is also continuing to operate programmes in Belarus.

Women and children

In the run up to International Women’s Day early next week, Ms Roche is calling for women’s organisations around the country and globally to bring a focus to the vulnerability of women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, among all of the great people on the border helping out, there are also some predators with violent intentions,” she said.

“We have to think about those women who are traumatised and children who are bereft and here they are in no man’s land, having walked away from their homes and families, and there are huge child protection issues there that we need to highlight.”

Ms Roche said the “extraordinary outpouring” of generosity from Irish people was “the only thing keeping us all together.”

“Even while trying to come out of a pandemic, our small nation has risen like they’ve never risen before,” she said.

However, it was important now that the “power of diplomacy” rose to the challenge of bringing a ceasefire in Ukraine.

"Given Ireland is a proud neutral nation and we have a seat on the security council, we should become champions of peace. It's time for our Government to become the peace brokers and for our ambassador to the UN to really plead with Putin to declare a ceasefire."