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IAEA: Ukraine nuke plant faces 'constant threat'

The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog called for a security zone at Ukraine's nuclear power plant where combatants are "playing with fire" by shelling targets nearby.

IAEA inspectors arrive at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant
IAEA inspectors arrive at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant (AN/IAEA)

The United Nations nuclear watchdog called for a security zone around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant where combatants are "playing with fire" by shelling targets in the vicinity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's new 52-page report on Tuesday says the fighting is "a constant threat to nuclear safety and security because critical safety functions (containment of the radioactivity and cooling in particular) could be impacted."

After a visit to the Russian-controlled nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, IAEA's inspection team said it was greatly concerned about the damage it found at "a special building that houses, among other items, the fresh nuclear fuel and the solid radioactive waste storage facility."

But the team "witnessed that some repair work had already been carried out or was in progress for some of the damage and noted that further work would be needed to repair all the damage caused," the report says. "The team was informed that the radiation levels in the area remained normal."

A photo exhibit from the IAEA mission to Ukraine's report
A photo exhibit from the IAEA mission to Ukraine's report (AN/IAEA)

In response, IAEA said "there is an urgent need for interim measures to prevent a nuclear accident" and the shelling around the plant must stop immediately. “This requires agreement," it said, "by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant.

Also Tuesday, Grossi and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the U.N. Security Council during the third such meeting that Russia has requested to discuss the situation at Zaporizhzhya, Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

Guterres said he remains "gravely concerned" by what is happening there and that "any damage, whether intentional or not," could spell catastrophe not only for Ukraine, but for the region beyond. He called for Russian and Ukrainian forces to commit to ending all military activity around the plant and agree on establishing a safe “demilitarized perimeter.”

Doing so must include “a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it," Guterres said.

Grossi told the 15-nation council by videoconference that the plant's physical integrity must not be compromised but, unfortunately, "this has happened and this continues to happen, the physical attacks, wittingly or unwittingly" because of the war in Ukraine.

“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” said Grossi, adding this why a safety zone is needed at "the perimeter and the plant itself."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told the council — on which Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States have permanent, veto-wielding seats — that the plant seems to be "functioning normally" despite the shelling but his nation would support creation of a safety zone. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the shelling.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasized in his nightly address to his nation that the IAEA report "notes the presence of Russian military equipment" at the plant and "makes clear references to the Russian military occupation." But he said the proposal to create a protection zone still needs further study.

"We need to look at the specific content of such an instrument: what exactly can be the protection?" said Zelenskyy. "If the content of this proposal is to demilitarize the territory of the nuclear power plant — and this is logical, as it was the Russian military presence that put the Zaporizhzhia plant on the brink of a radiation disaster — then we can support such a demilitarized protection zone."

"In any case, I believe that modern international organizations need a much broader mandate for their actions," he added. "I believe that the world not only deserves, but also needs the representatives of the IAEA to force Russia to demilitarize the territory of the [nuclear power plant] and return full control to Ukraine."

'Widespread concern'

Shelling continued around the plant — which normally uses outside electricity to power its cooling system and avoid a meltdown or radiation release — even as IAEA issued the report and the Security Council met on Tuesday. Now, though, the plant must produce its own electricity to prevent a catastrophe.

When nuclear power plants are disconnected from the power grid and are forced to rely on power from their own reactor to run their cooling and safety systems, the condition is known as "islanding," or "island mode," and is only considered a normal procedure during testing or other temporary disconnections from the power grid. If islanding fails, experts say, diesel emergency backup generators are supposed to take over and prevent the reactor and  spent fuel from overheating.

IAEA dispatched a team of inspectors from Vienna last week on an urgent mission to secure and "undertake vital safeguards" at the nuclear power plant, prompted by widespread concern that shelling in the area could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.

"With the worsening nuclear safety and security situation at the ZNPP since April, the director general raised concerns in his public updates that any further escalation affecting the six-reactor plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with potentially grave radiological consequences for human health and the environment in Ukraine and elsewhere," IAEA says in Tuesday's report, "and that renewed shelling at or near the ZNPP was deeply troubling for nuclear safety and security at the facility, and reiterated his demand that all such military activity cease."

IAEA notes the Ukrainian staff operating the plant under Russian military occupation have been suffering from "constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available," which is creating a work environment that raises the odds of "increased human error with implications for nuclear safety." The report recommends creating an "appropriate work environment, including family support" to reduce the chances of an inadvertent nuclear accident.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog is keeping two staff posted at Zaporizhzhya so they can monitor it and make independent assessments. Four other IAEA experts left the plant as planned after several days of work on a mission led by Grossi, who said the plant still can produce the electricity it needs for cooling and other critical safety functions.

The six experts arrived there last Thursday as part of a team led by Grossi. Russian forces have been in control of the plant since early March, not long after invading Ukraine, but Ukrainian staff continue to operate the plant.

"Over the past month, there have been numerous shelling incidents at or near the ZNPP, causing damage at the facility and raising widespread concern about the risk of a severe nuclear accident potentially jeopardizing human health and the environment," Grossi said, adding that shelling on the day his team arrived damaged an oil tank containing turbine lubrication oil, and there was more shelling on Monday.

IAEA said a back-up power line was "deliberately disconnected" that day to extinguish a fire caused by shelling. The line was not damaged, it said, and the plant, which has six pressurized light water nuclear reactors, continued to receive the electricity needed for its sole operating reactor.