An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team found “extremely complex, extremely challenging” conditions at Ukraine’s captive Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in an inspection that followed passage through war zone routes. Six members of the team remain at the site for the next week, with Russia agreeing to keep two inspectors on-site long-term, according to the IAEA.
The IAEA team’s unprecedented visit under shellfire to the plant — a first for the United Nations nuclear safety agency — reflected concern worldwide about a possible radiological disaster at the power plant. The team negotiated roads covered by shellfire, traveling from the Ukrainian side of the lines to the Russian one amid a military offensive taking place in the same region.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant — which Russian forces captured in March following their invasion of Ukraine — has been repeatedly disconnected from external cooling power lines and subject to shelling this month. One reactor was briefly shut down under emergency conditions, a SCRAM, last week, and has resumed power generation.
“I was able to see, myself and my team, impact holes, markings on buildings from shells, which means that the physical integrity of the facility has been violated not once but several times,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, speaking at a news conference on Friday, following his return to Vienna from the plant inspection, which he accompanied traveling in nine armored SUVs with the agency team. “This is something, irrespective of the kinetic power of whatever you are throwing at the plant, is unacceptable in any way under any safety and security criteria.”
Of seven criteria used to assess the safety of a plant, the inspectors saw only one that was not either compromised in part or fully, said Grossi, raising particular concern over the plant’s physical integrity, staff safety, off-site power and radiation monitoring as the biggest points of worry, as well as spent fuel stored on the site.
With two of its six reactors still operating, run at Russian gunpoint by Ukrainian technicians, the plant has continued supplying Ukraine with electricity throughout the war. One of the largest nuclear power plants in Europe, it had previously supplied a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity. Ukraine’s nuclear power company said Russia had provided the inspectors with a “staged show” on Friday, according to the New York Times, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier accused Russia of threatening local residents with reprisals if they didn’t lie to the IAEA team about local conditions, while calling for a demilitarized zone at the plant.
“The situation is extremely complex, extremely challenging, and it will continue to require the permanent support and the monitoring that we are trying to provide now,” said Grossi. He called increasing fighting around the region the major threat to the plant, citing shelling that started in August. Cutoff of external cooling power at the plant could trigger a crisis there, which experts have described as posing a threat similar to the loss of cooling power that triggered a cooling disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011.
“The IAEA retaining a presence there is a keyway to help prevent a calamity at [the plant] because a team would dissuade combatants from attacking the site in a way that leads to a loss of cooling crisis,” said Shorena Lortkipanidze of the Civil Council on Defense and Security in Tbilisi, Georgia. “They would help to alert the world of the danger once a crisis starts.”
The IAEA’s visit is especially valuable since reports to date of damage have come from Ukraine and Russia, both of which have incentives to distort accounts to serve their own interests.
“Practically, the inspection mission should be able to produce an objective report on the safety and risks at the plant — something we have not had to date,” said Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
“Symbolically, it sends the message that nuclear plants should be treated differently than other facilities in war,” he added.
However, the wartime conditions under which the team made the inspection visit, with Grossi negotiating checkpoints under threat of gunfire, doubtless compromised the quality of their inspection, said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. A normal safety inspection would take over two weeks for a similar size team, he said, “and that usually doesn’t take place in a war zone and with a noncooperative host.”
Grossi said he was allowed to inspect any location he requested while at the plant, in the news conference. However, he was not able to communicate with Russian military officials about returning a crisis center at the plant to normal operations, he said.
In a crisis, even if all of the nuclear power plant’s reactors were turned off in emergency shutdowns, they would still require careful management to cool off without triggering a disaster, said former Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist Cheryl Rofer. That would require continuous power and water supplies for cooling.
“We have to step back here and ask, ‘What does Russia think it’s doing in this war anyway?” said Rofer. Russia took over the power plant early in the war, anticipating an easy victory in Ukraine, which makes military sense in trying to control another country. However, the invasion was a failure, leaving Russia with a power plant that cannot easily plug into its electric grid in the middle of a war, and which has become a prime example of the wider danger unleashed by its military decision, said Rofer. “For now, I think they are using it as a psychological weapon to make everybody afraid.”
Grossi said that the IAEA inspector’s presence at the power plant should help ensure its safety, with both Russian and Ukrainian military forces understanding that more attacks on the plant will be reported. “I don’t want to aggrandize or pretend that what we are doing is going to either settle this terrible war or give back the plant to Ukraine. This is beyond our capacities,” said Grossi. “What we are doing there is stabilizing the safety and the security of the safeguards.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.