UN nuclear watchdog visits Ukraine’s embattled nuclear plant in pursuit of a safety accord

zaporizhzhya The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. Credit: Ralf1969

The head of the UN’s nuclear energy watchdog returned Wednesday to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, reportedly saying he is working on a plan to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power facility “more locally” amid the war in the surrounding area.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi crossed the war’s front lines for a second time to reach the plant, which is located in a partially Russia-occupied part of Ukraine where combat has intensified.

The IAEA, which is based in Vienna, Austria, has a rotating team permanently based at the plant. Grossi told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday he feels it is his duty to ramp up talks between Kyiv and Moscow aimed at safeguarding the facility and avoiding a catastrophic accident. He said a deal was “close.”

Grossi met Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and said he would “most probably” head to Moscow in the coming days. But Zelenskyy remained skeptical that Grossi’s visit would conclude in a deal to protect the plant, telling AP that, “I don’t feel it today.”

Grossi has called for a protection zone around the plant since the early days of the war, but a deal has been elusive. Ukraine insists all Russian forces must leave the facility. Grossi said Wednesday he was working on “realistic measures” he believed would be acceptable to both sides, according to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.

“There have been and there are various ideas and concepts we’re working on,” Grossi said, according to RIA Novosti. “It’s a work in progress. We’re developing a concept to defend the plant more locally.”

Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, Rosatom, has taken over the management of the plant. Rosatom is trying to force plant operatives and engineers to sign contracts with it rather than with Ukraine’s state nuclear company, giving them until April 1 to do so, according to The New York Times,

Grossi told the paper that he did not know whether Rosatom intended to connect the plant to Russia’s grid.He also said it was imperative that the nuclear power plant had enough water for its cooling systems.

The Ukrainian authorities have said in recent weeks that Russian forces, who control a dam downstream from the plant on the Dnipro River, were allowing the water level to fall in the reservoir that feeds the nuclear facility.

The power station’s reactors are shut down and the plant has received the electricity it needs to run the cooling systems needed to prevent a reactor meltdown through one remaining functioning power line.

Interruptions to the outside electricity supply due to the fighting required plant personnel to switch to emergency diesel generators six times during the 13-month war. When backup power supplies might be needed again is unpredictable, according to Grossi.

Renat Karchaa, an advisor to Russia’s Rosenergoatom, the nuclear utility branch of Rosatom, said Wednesday ahead of the visit that it would unlikely bring about any major breakthroughs toward a protecton zone.

“We are far from having any illusions that Grossi’s visit will dramatically change anything. For us, this is an ordinary working event,” he was cited as saying by Russian news agencies.

“Of course, anything can happen,” he added.