IAEA chief urges Russia and Ukraine to ban attacks on besieged Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

Zaporizhzhia Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General during a March briefing on the Zaporizhzhya plant. Credit: IAEA Imagebank

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog Tuesday stressed that the world is lucky that a nuclear accident hasn’t happened at Ukraine Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and asked Moscow and Kyiv to commit to preventing any attacks on Europe’s atomic power station and make pledges “to avoid the danger of a catastrophic incident.”

But diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian sides shied away from embracing the plea, and instead indicated further conditions to exempt the plant from the dangers of the war swirling around it.

In his Tuesday speech, Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Nuclear Energy Agency, reiterated what to the UN Security Council what he had told his agency’s board in March: “We are rolling a dice and if this continues then one day our luck will run out.”

Grossi added that avoiding a radiation calamity is possible if five principles are observed at the Zaporizhzhia plant, where on seven occasions — most recently last week —military conflicts have disrupted critical power supplies for the plant’s cooling and safety functions, which he said are “the last line of defense against a nuclear accident.”

Grossi “respectfully and solemnly” asked Ukraine and Russia to observe the principles, saying IAEA experts at Zaporizhzhia will start monitoring and he will publicly report on any violations:

  • Ban attacks from or against the plant, especially targeting reactors and spent fuel storage areas.
  • Ban the storage of heavy weapons or presence of military personnel that could be used for an attack.
  • Ensure the security of an uninterrupted off-site power supply to the plant.
  • Protect “all structures, systems and components” essential to the plant’s operation from attacks or acts of sabotage.
  • Take no action to undermine these principles.

Moscow’s forces took over the plant in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy opposes any proposal that would seem to legitimize Russia’s control of the plant.

Ukraine’s UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya accused Russia of continuing “to actively use the nuclear plant for military purposes.” He said Russia has mined its perimeter and is responsible for shelling that has inflicted “serious damage” to parts of the plant, undermining its safety. He claimed 500 Russian military personnel are at the plant along with heavy weapons, munitions and explosives.

“The threat of dangerous accident as a result of these irresponsible and criminal actions hangs over us,” he said.

In remarks later in the week, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko denied that, claiming that Ukraine has long been attacking [the plant], as well as making threats to attack it.” He further blamed Kyiv for derailing talks to establish the IAEA’s propose safe zone around the plant.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said recent news reports indicate that Moscow has disconnected Zaporizhzhia’s vital radiation monitoring sensors, which means the plant’s data is now being sent to the Russian nuclear regulator.

“This is a clear escalation of Russia’s efforts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and authority over the Zaporizhzhia plant. And this undermines our ability to have confidence in the level of nuclear safety at the plant,” she said. “Let me be clear: the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant belongs to Ukraine. And its data must go to Ukraine, not to Russia.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant used to supply about 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity and continued to function in the early months of Russia’s offensive despite frequent shelling, before halting power production in September.