The United Nations' nuclear watchdog dispatched a team of inspectors from Vienna on Monday on an urgent mission to secure the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia power station in southern Ukraine, prompted by widespread concern that continued shelling and fighting in the area could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.
Ukraine informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that renewed shelling caused serious damage at the nuclear plant, Europe's largest. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said an IAEA expert mission is urgently needed to "undertake vital safeguards" and lessen the risk of a severe nuclear accident in Europe.
"It is those facts, gathered during a site visit, that are needed for the IAEA to be able to develop and provide an independent risk assessment of the nuclear safety and security risks," he said.
The inspection team plans to assess the physical damage to the plant’s facilities, determine whether the main and back-up safety and security systems were functional, and evaluate the staff’s working conditions.
Shelling damaged the plant's laboratory and chemical facilities, and impaired transformers at a nearby thermal power plant, temporarily disconnecting a power line from it to the nuclear plant. Just one of the nuclear plant's four power lines to the grid was operational.
IAEA emphasized that a secure off-site power supply from the grid is one of seven essential conditions to ensure nuclear safety. The other six are the plant's physical integrity; independent operating staff who can work free of undue pressure; fully functional safety and security systems and equipment; uninterrupted logistical supply chains; effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems; and reliable communications among all concerned.
Grossi also has briefed the U.N. Security Council on the worsening nuclear safety and security situation at the six-reactor plant.
U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council that agreement is needed to ensure the plant is treated as "purely civilian infrastructure" and avoid the possibility of a nuclear incident with catastrophic consequences for the immediate vicinity, region and beyond.
"In early August, disturbing reports of an escalation of shelling around the plant began to emerge," she said. "All military personnel and equipment must be withdrawn from the plant. There should be no further deployment of forces or equipment to the site. The facility must not be used as part of any military operation, and an agreement on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area should be reached."
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council “the nuclear safety situation has further deteriorated,” with Ukrainian armed forces continuing "basically every day to shell the territory of the nuclear power plant and the town of Enerhodar and this creates a real risk of a radiation accident."
Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly blamed one another for the shelling at Enerhodar, where the plant is located. Experts fear the shelling could damage the plant's reactors or spent fuel pools.
Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya demanded that Russian troops withdraw from the area and allow the plant to be part of a demilitarized zone.
Both sides expressed support for an IAEA mission to the plant.
'Urgent agreement' needed to establish a safe zone
IAEA, which monitors the operational status of the plant's reactors, had not been able to visit the plant since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. Russian forces have controlled the plant since early March — with Ukrainian staff merely allowed to operate it. Among the plant's six reactors, only reactor units 5 and 6 are still being used to generate power.
U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders of Britain, France and Germany appealed to Russia to bring an end to its military operations around the nuclear plant as rockets and mortar shells fell.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he, too, is "gravely concerned" about the risks.
"I have appealed to all concerned to exercise common sense and reason and not to undertake any actions that might endanger the physical integrity, safety or security of the nuclear plant — the largest of its kind in Europe," he said earlier this month. "Regrettably, instead of de-escalation, over the past several days there have been reports of further deeply worrying incidents that could, if they continue, lead to disaster."
Guterres urged all military activities in the immediate vicinity of the plant to cease immediately and not to target its facilities or surroundings. He also called for "urgent agreement" at a technical level so that a safe perimeter can be established to make it a demilitarized area.
"We must be clear that any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia or any other nuclear facilities in Ukraine, or anywhere else, could lead to catastrophic consequences not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond," said Guterres. "This is wholly unacceptable."
This story has been updated with additional details.