UN nuclear watchdog continues to press for visit to besieged nuclear power plant

Control room The control room of a nuclear reactor. Credit: Getty Images

International Atomic Energy Agency head Rapael Grossi says he intends to keep pushing for a visit to the embattled Zaporizhzhe nuclear power plant, telling European Parliament this week that the situation at Ukraine’s largest atomic energy facility is “fragile” and “terribly complicated.”

The plant – both Ukraine and Europe’s largest – is currently under the control of the Russian military, which is holding the Ukrainian staff at gunpoint to keep the plant operational. Grossi has implored both the Russian and Ukrainian side to allow IAEA inspectors to assess the plant’s safety as Russia’s invasion drags on, so far without success.

During a joint session of the European Parliament’s security and defence and foreign affairs sub-committee, Grossi said that he was in contact with both the Ukrainian and Russian sides to arrange a technical mission to the plan, World Nuclear News reported.

And while both sides have agreed to the IAEA request for an inspection visit, both sides insist that the mission be carried out under their flag, the agency said.

And while it is clear to all that the Zaporizhzhya plant is in Ukraine and is, in fact, a Ukrainian facility, Grossi said that wartime politics were blurring this distinction.

“At the same time I deal with realities, and the reality is that this plant is under Russian military control,” he told European Parliament, according to WNN.  “The reality is that I am confronted with a situation where the format, the political modalities of the visit, are even more important for them than the technical mission that I need to perform.”

He added that the situation had not yet reached a “dead end,” and that he was still speaking with both sides to negotiate a visit.

While Ukraine has assured the agency that the integrity of the plant’s six reactors had not been affected and that no radioactive material had been released, Grossi said a visit  Zaporizhzhya was warranted because 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 Zaporizhzhya Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, where the plant is located, has increasingly fallen in the sites of Russian forces as they look to establish control of the neighboring Donbas region.

Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhya plant during a dramatic assault on March 4, destroying a training laboratory during shelling and raising fears of a nuclear calamity.

Since then, Ukrainian regulators say that officials from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, have been giving orders to the plant’s Ukrainian staff.

Last week Grossi called this ambiguity of command over the plant’s six Soviet-built nuclear reactor “unsustainable,” adding that the arrangement puts “unbelievable pressure” on the Ukrainian staff.

Speaking before European Parliament, Grossi spoke of this apparent dual command structure in harsher terms, saying it “goes against every possible safety principle that we have. There is potential for disagreement, there is potential for friction, potential for contradictory instructions.”

“You don’t want to have that in such a complex, delicate, sophisticated facility as a nuclear power plant,” he added.