For weeks, there had been talks to get a team of experts from the AIEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, to come to Ukraine, in a war zone to inspect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), the biggest in Europe, with six reactors. But the talks had been stalled amidst continued irresponsible shelling of the plant since the Russians occupied the region in March.
As Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the attacks, this made it difficult to find an agreement ensuring the safety of the UN inspectors while the threat of an atomic catastrophe loomed ever larger over the rest of the world.
Finally, 14 experts led by Rafael Grossi, head of the AIEA left on August 29 and arrived yesterday, September 1, at the ZNPP and undertook a first, preliminary inspection.
The day has come, @IAEAorg‘s Support and Assistance Mission to #Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) is now on its way. We must protect the safety and security of #Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility. Proud to lead this mission which will be in #ZNPP later this week. pic.twitter.com/tyVY7l4SrM
— Rafael MarianoGrossi (@rafaelmgrossi) August 29, 2022
That first inspection was enough for Grossi to state that “It is obvious that the plant and physical integrity of the plant have been violated several times”. And to announce that a permanent AIEA team would “stay” at the ZNPP, as “this cannot continue to happen” – his own words (bolding added). Five experts out of the 14 will stay until Monday to monitor the plant, to be replaced by another fresh team of AIEA experts.
Not enough for Ukraine President Zelensky who wants the whole area around the plant demilitarized. And that, for now, is something the Russians won’t entertain.
This question of demilitarizing a war zone is a political issue for Ukraine and Russia – the two states engaged in war, while for the AIEA, it is a technical issue.
As Grossi has repeatedly said, the shelling of the plant and the power cuts have highlighted “the potential vulnerability of a major nuclear power plant (NPP) located in the middle of an active conflict zone” and the critical importance of sending an IAEA expert mission to “help stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation there”.
Now we know what he means by “help to stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation”. He means leaving a team of his experts there, to “monitor” the plant and verify the extent of damage caused by the continuous shelling.
And also witness, if it so happens, what the Ukrainians are accusing the Russians of doing: Parking military vehicles and ammunitions among the reactors (or close to them) and using ZNPP as a basis for launching missile attacks on Ukrainian targets.
An IAEA testimonial that Russian troops are indeed engaged in turning the nuclear plant into a military base for their operations, betting that Ukrainians will not dare to retaliate and shell the plant, could cause intense embarrassment for Russia and Putin’s “special operation to denazify Ukraine”.
It would be a testimonial coming from an independent, international group of technical experts, and that, inevitably, would have political consequences.
This is a case where the boundary between politics and technical issues becomes blurred. Hopefully, the very presence of a permanent AIEA team on the ZNPP premises might be enough to preserve security without recourse to a formal agreement to demilitarise the area. If all goes well, it could be a form of de facto demilitarization.
What happened before the UN inspection arrived at the ZNPP?
Ukrainian workers have kept ZNPP running even though they have encountered great difficulties as Russians reportedly harassed them (200 have reportedly been deported and one killed).
On the very day the inspectors arrived, September 1, there was an attack on the plant early that morning, and as a result, “the emergency system was activated and Unit Number 5 shut down” at 2:57 am CET, Energoatom said in a statement on Telegram.
Each side has repeatedly accused the other of shelling the complex, raising fears that the fighting could trigger a catastrophe. An AP News on Aug. 28 reported that cities near the plant were shelled.
Recent satellite images from Planet Labs showed fires burning around the complex over the last several days – at least since August 23.
The area of the ZNPP was bombed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but Ukraine did not yet have complete information on the nature of the damage, Grossi said before he got there (and that was yet another good reason to carry out an inspection).
The shelling reportedly hit the area of the plant’s two so-called special buildings, both located about 100 meters from the reactor buildings, as well as one overpass area.
Those buildings house facilities including water treatment plants, equipment repair shops, or waste management facilities. There was also damage to some water pipelines at the site but they had been repaired.
However, according to Ukrainian authorities, all measurements of radioactivity at the ZNPP site were within normal range, and there was no indication of any hydrogen leakage.
All well and good? Not for the AIEA: This is a clear sign that risks of a nuclear catastrophe cannot be excluded. Hence the need for an inspection – and, as now called for by Grossi, of a continued presence of AIEA staff on the ZNPP site.
Updates on nuclear safety and security in Ukraine are regularly issued by the AEIA and may be found here.
Why is fighting around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant so dangerous?
Memories of the famous Chornobyl nuclear accident of 1986 are on every European’s mind and the parallels are too striking to be ignored.
At first, on April 26, the day of the Chornobyl accident, a wind of 30 to 40 km/h carried a plume of radioactive dust towards northern Ukraine and Belarus – particularly harmful dust as it contained extremely short-lived dangerous radioelements. Unfortunately, it did not stop there. Nobody can forget how the nuclear cloud traveled across Europe, spreading radiation as far as the Baltic sea and beyond.
In fact, large amounts of radioactive materials were released and spread over all of Europe and the rest of the world. Numerous studies were made on the fallout from Chornobyl, ranging from Finland to Sweden, to Greece to the United States but with varying results, sometimes finding, for example, a correlation between Chornobyl and leukemia in children.
Yet, it should be noted that most often such a correlation could not be found, with some experts noting that the data may have been insufficient to reach definitive conclusions. But the very number of studies is, of itself, indicative of the level of worry caused by possible radioactive fallout.
One thing is certain, preventive measures need to be taken, at least in Ukraine.
The local Ukrainian authorities have already moved forward. They are ready to supply the neighboring population – some 400,000 people live within 35 miles of the plant – with iodine pills.
On Aug 30, the E.U. announced plans to give Ukraine 5.5 million potassium iodine tablets. Iodine is believed to help in case of a radiation leak by saturating the thyroid gland with iodine so that inhaled or ingested radioactive iodine is not retained.
Local Ukraine authorities are doing more than just distributing iodine: They have also set up a public warning system and evacuation plans.
So far, the Russians have done nothing in this regard, implying once again, that the safety of civilians is of no concern to them. And the irresponsible and dangerous shelling that has plagued the plant, threatening Europe and even the whole world’s nuclear security since March, could well continue if the matter is not resolved.
The ball is now in Russia’s court: Time for Putin to deal with this issue. Will he rise to the occasion and act responsibly or will he break down and issue a series of irresponsible threats?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) of 14 experts traveling to Ukraine on August 29 to ensure nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: F. Dahl/IAEA)