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UN Nuclear Watchdog Is ‘Gravely Concerned’ About Ukraine Plant Held by Russia

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Rafael Grossi, director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, briefed journalists in Vienna after his return from Ukraine, where he and his team, shown in screen above, visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site, April 28, 2022. Grossi also met with President Zelensky and is aiming to travel to Russia to negotiate access for the agency to check on the Zaporizhzhia plant, now held by Russian troops. DEAN CALMA/IAEA

VIENNA — The International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “grave concern” recently about the safety at Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia, and said that the situation for the Ukrainian personnel working there was “unsustainable.”

The plant was captured by Russian forces in a dramatic assault on March 4. Ever since then, Ukrainian staff continue to manage the daily business at the plant, but eight nuclear experts from Russia’s own Rosenergoatom company, a unit of the Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom, are also present at the plant.

The IAEA director-general, Rafael Grossi, said on April 29 that the United Nations agency was informed by Kyiv that the Ukrainian staffers at Zaporizhzhia were “working under unbelievable pressure,” being monitored constantly by the Rosatom experts, who demanded daily reports from plant management about “confidential issues” on the functioning of the plant.

“The IAEA considers that the presence of Rosatom senior technical staff could lead to interference with the normal lines of operational command or authority, and potential frictions when it comes to decision-making,” the IAEA said in a report published on Friday.

Grossi told reporters that he discussed the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 26, during a personal meeting in Kyiv. [Update, May 4: Grossi tweeted that he had met with the head of Rosatom and other senior Russian officials in Istanbul, and stressed the “urgency of ensuring” the safety of the plant] 

“Clearly, the situation in and around Zaporizhzhia is not only a matter of nuclear safety, security and safeguards, it is a matter of profound political implications,” Grossi said at the media briefing.

“What I can tell you at this point is that our consultations continue first and foremost with Ukraine but also with Russia,” Grossi added. “In a few days, I will be seeing also my Russian counterparts and will continue this discussion.” He did not specify the exact date or location of the potential meeting, but it is understood that Grossi will try to negotiate access for the IAEA to the Zaporizhzhia plant.

Grossi held a meeting with senior Russian officials on April 1, including with the Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev, where they began discussions on ensuring nuclear safety in Ukraine. The meeting was held in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is squeezed between Poland and Lithuania.

While Ukraine assured the UN agency that the integrity of the plant’s six reactors had not been affected and that no radioactive material had been released, Grossi said that he was working hard on visiting Zaporizhzhia because his IAEA specialists “need to see the functionality of the safety equipment” and to check “whether there has been an impact on the physical protection of material” as a result of the Russian attack in March.

The IAEA is also worried about the power supply of the plant, given that two of its four power lines were damaged and lost during the Russian assault.

Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, told PassBlue that if Grossi succeeds in arranging a visit to Zaporizhzhia, IAEA inspectors “would have a long checklist, from walking down the plant to inspect damage and the state of repair, including electrical systems that are a particular concern, to looking at how programs for radiation monitoring and protection of personnel are being carried out.”

Lyman also said that “the human element is a key factor in nuclear plant safety,” referring to the importance of checking on the Ukrainian staff and their morale.

Zaporizhzhia is Europe’s largest nuclear power station, located in southeast Ukraine, part of the region where civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were recently evacuated by a joint mission of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Although the city is still in Ukrainian hands, the nuclear facility was captured by Russian forces on March 4, after intense shelling throughout the night that destroyed a training center situated just a few hundred meters away from the plant’s six reactors, as well as a laboratory building, another administrative building and two high-voltage lines that provide power supply to the plant. Some partial damage was apparently also inflicted on two of the six reactors.

The attack sent shock waves across the rest of Europe, raising fears of a global catastrophe similar to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

It even led President Zelensky to issue a stark warning in the early hours of March 4, saying that “a catastrophe ten times worse than Chernobyl may happen. This will be the end of all Europe.”

Lyman told PassBlue: “When I heard that a fire broke out at the plant, without knowing exactly where it was, I was very concerned because fire is potentially one of the most dangerous things to occur at a nuclear plant and has a high risk of causing a meltdown if it disables electrical systems. Fortunately, the fire was confined to administrative buildings, but it was a close call.”

Situation in Chernobyl under control

Grossi also briefed reporters in Vienna on April 29 about his mission earlier in the week to Ukraine, which included a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and exclusion zone, a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius surrounding the site of the reactor disaster. During the mission, IAEA nuclear experts delivered vital equipment that Ukraine had requested.

The specialists also reinstalled an antenna to reconnect the remote monitoring abilities that had been disrupted for two months as a result of the Russian takeover of the site on Feb. 24.

Grossi said that the agency was now “getting back the information” that it needed to monitor the nuclear material still present at the site as well as other activities. The data are received by satellites on the rooftop of the UN headquarters building in Vienna.

Furthermore, while visiting the Chernobyl site, IAEA specialists measured the radiation level at a specific area inside the exclusion zone, where Russian forces had been digging fortifications and trenches, a task during which the soldiers may have been exposed to radiation.

Grossi said, however, that while his experts did measure an increase in the radiation level there, this was still “significantly below the authorized levels for workers in an environment with this type of radiation.”

The Chernobyl site, which is located in northern Ukraine, near the border with Belarus, is no longer a working nuclear power plant, but the reactor that was destroyed in the 1986 disaster requires constant management and monitoring by staff to ensure that no additional nuclear material is released.

Russia seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the first day of its invasion of Ukraine, as Russian tanks rolled across the border from Belarus firing on the plant, then surrounding it and detaining the Ukrainian guards in the site’s basement. At the same time, the troops allowed the Ukrainian technicians and engineers to continue to run the facility under the Russians’ watch.

The Ukrainian staff were not allowed to leave the site while the Russian forces occupied it and were not allowed to rotate, which subjected them to a lot of stress, leading Grossi to say that this could have “potentially adverse consequences for safety.” On March 31, the Russian troops withdrew from the plant.

The IAEA said that the situation is back under control but that more work is needed to return the site to normalcy. This work will be done within the next few weeks.

Risks of missiles going astray

Grossi also said on April 29 that if reports about missiles flying over the South Ukraine nuclear power plant, a third site, located in Mikolaiv province, around 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of Kyiv, are confirmed, this will be “extremely serious.”

“Had such a missile gone astray, it could have had a severe impact on the physical integrity of the plant, potentially leading to a nuclear accident,” he said.

The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented for being the first time that a war is taking place amid all four nuclear power plants across the country. A major nuclear accident could have widespread consequences far beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Speaking about the risk of a nuclear accident, Lyman told PassBlue that it “is higher than it should be because Russia continues to ignore the entreaties of Ukraine and the IAEA to respect the integrity of its nuclear facilities and refrain from putting them in danger from military bombardment.”

This article was updated to reflect news of Grossi’s meeting with Russian officials in Istanbul on May 4, 2022.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, covering diplomacy and international organizations for more than 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the EU Observer, The Washington Post and Austrian daily newspapers such as Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung. http://www.stephanieliechtenstein.com

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