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UN Watchdog Board Is Expected to Criticize Russia for Its Actions at the Ukraine Nuke Plant


IAEA head Rafael Grossi
Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, with his technical team in Ukraine, inspecting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is occupied by Russian troops, Sept. 1, 2022. A draft resolution by the agency’s board is likely to take a serious step by criticizing Russia’s continued seizure of the plant. FREDRIK DAHL/IAEA

VIENNA — Poland and Canada have circulated a draft resolution among members of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, criticizing Russia’s “violent actions against nuclear facilities in Ukraine, including the ongoing presence of Russian forces and Rosatom personnel at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.”

The resolution by the board at the United Nations’ nuclear monitor and watchdog, known as the IAEA, says that the Russian actions “pose serious and direct threats to the safety and security of these facilities and their civilian personnel, thereby significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident or incident.”

The text of the draft resolution, dated Sept. 5 and seen by PassBlue, “calls upon the Russian Federation to immediately cease all actions against, and at, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and any other nuclear facility in Ukraine, in order for the competent authorities to regain full control.”

Russia blames Ukraine for the shelling that has been happening at the site since August and says that its troops and experts are protecting the plant from further damage. The attacks occur as Russia’s war on Ukraine moves into its seventh month, with no end in sight.

The resolution also “notes with concern” the report by the agency’s Director-General Rafael Grossi on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which was published after the agency’s experts assessed the situation on the ground on Sept. 1. But the resolution falls short of directly calling for the establishment of a demilitarized safety zone around the plant, one of the main recommendations contained in the document.

Diplomats in Vienna say that there is not enough clarity about the details of such a safety zone and what it would exactly entail. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has also called for a demilitarized zone as well as Russia’s withdrawal from the plant. President Volodymr Zelensky has said he would back such a plan, but when reporters asked Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, about it recently, he dismissed the possibility.

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The establishment of such a zone is outside the mandate of the IAEA and would have to be implemented and supervised by the UN or another competent organization.

The IAEA draft resolution does, however, express support for Grossi’s “ongoing efforts to address the nuclear safety, security, and safeguards implications of the current situation in Ukraine, including through the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia and the continued physical presence of Agency technical experts at Zaporizhzhia.”

The draft proposal will be negotiated in the next few days, but several diplomats with knowledge of the situation have told PassBlue that the text was unlikely to change significantly. A specific formulation on Grossi’s recommendation to establish a safety zone is still under negotiation.

Poland and Canada have continuously pushed for such a resolution in the past few weeks. They were the driving force behind the first resolution on nuclear safety at Ukraine plants. It was adopted on March 3 at an emergency meeting of the agency’s board of governors in Vienna.

One diplomat with knowledge of the situation said that the current resolution was a “first step to begin codifying the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security,” outlined by Grossi in March. “It is the duty of the IAEA board to say something about this situation,” the diplomat added.

Another diplomat said that the resolution was a way of clearly supporting the efforts by the agency to protect the safety of nuclear power plants amid the war against Ukraine, as well as a “diplomatic instrument to exert pressure on Russia.”

The new draft resolution will be voted on at next week’s quarterly IAEA board of governors meeting, held Sept. 12-16. For the resolution to be passed, a simple majority of the 35-member body is required. It is expected that Russia and China will vote against the resolution and that there will be a few abstentions. But diplomats expect the resolution to pass easily.

It comes after a long-awaited, risky mission by a team of 14 IAEA experts, including Grossi, to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine on Sept. 1.

The UN convoy of the mission avoided traveling through Russian-occupied territory and instead went through Ukraine, starting in its capital, Kyiv. It included driving through an active war zone and encountering a delay of several hours at a Ukrainian checkpoint amid intense shelling. “Having come this far, I was not going to stop and with my courageous team we moved in. There were moments where fire was obvious,” Grossi told reporters in Ukraine afterward.

Grossi and his team inspected the plant for about four hours. He told reporters after his return to Vienna, where the IAEA is based, that he could see everything he needed to see. Two IAEA experts are staying at the plant indefinitely, he said.

In the report released on Sept. 6, the IAEA calls for establishing a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the atomic power plant, the biggest in Europe, with six reactors. The report also says that “shelling on site and in its vicinity should be stopped immediately to avoid any further damages to the plant” but stopped short of blaming either parties in the war for the damage at the plant.

The report details the damage as well as the potential catastrophic risks, including a possible “severe nuclear accident.” The plant has been continuously shelled since it was seized by Russian forces in a dramatic assault on March 4, soon after the war began on Feb. 24.

Briefing the UN Security Council on Sept. 7 remotely, Grossi reiterated his warning, saying that “we are playing with fire and something very catastrophic could take place.”

The constant shelling has led to the plant being disconnected from all of its external power grids. Shelling also took place while members of the IAEA team were inspecting the plant, forcing them to evacuate to the ground floor of an administrative building.

Nuclear power plants rely on external electricity to power critical cooling systems for their reactors and spent fuel pools. If cooling is interrupted and not restored quickly, a nuclear meltdown is likely to occur, which is similar to what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011. Such an incident would have potentially disastrous radioactive consequences for Ukraine and far beyond.

After having been disconnected from all external grids, the Zaporizhzhia plant began running on power that is generated by its own reactor, No. 6, the only one still operating.

Referring to this situation, Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., told PassBlue that he did not think that this mode “is safe for long-term operation.”

“I have concerns about this so-called island mode — where Unit 6 is running at very low power to provide electricity to the other units — and to its own cooling and safety systems. Although some plants around the world have been analyzed and approved for operating in this mode, I haven’t found any evidence that is true for Zaporizhzhia,” he said.

“If the plant is to continue operating, there is no alternative to creation of a demilitarized zone that would allow the offsite power lines to be repaired and secured from future damage,” Lyman added.

In an interview with PassBlue, Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, echoed this concern. “Loss of outside power is one of the most dreadful things that can happen to a nuclear plant,” Meshkati said. He thinks that the remaining reactor should be brought to a “cold shutdown” to avoid further catastrophe.

The Zaporizhzhia plant is equipped with 20 emergency diesel generators containing 2,250 tons of diesel fuel that can be used in case all other power supplies break down. However, the generators can operate only for a limited period of time, and due to the heavy fighting around the plant, it is not guaranteed that the fuel can be resupplied fast enough.

Meshkati is also particularly worried about the difficult conditions of Ukrainian staff working at the plant under the constant supervision of Russian nuclear experts from the Russian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. The IAEA report says that the Ukrainian personnel are “subject to constant high stress and pressure” while operating the plant, saying that this is “not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications on nuclear safety.”

Meshkati, who has 35 years of research experience in nuclear safety and has visited more than 16 nuclear power plants around the world, including Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, says that “factors such as stress and fatigue significantly increase human error probability.”

“It really chills me to the bone,” he said.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the crisis at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?

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.

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UN Watchdog Board Is Expected to Criticize Russia for Its Actions at the Ukraine Nuke Plant
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