Russia plans ‘full control’ as standoff continues over IAEA staff rotation and little progress made on protection zone Russia is pushing ahead with plans to take full control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. Petro Kotin said. Courtesy Energoatom. One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is pushing ahead with plans to take full control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and use it for the supply of electricity to occupied territories and Russia, the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said.

Petro Kotin told the My-Ukraina (“We are Ukraine”) news channel that Russia’s shelling of the station and the area around it since the invasion began in February 2022 is “an act of nuclear terrorism”.

He said Zaporizhzhia – which has six Soviet era reactors and is the largest commercial nuclear facility in Europe – had operated safely for almost 40 years, but since Russia took control “we have had 20 very serious events, including those on the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] emergency scale”.

Kotin said Russia had seized the nuclear station and all the infrastructure used to detect and respond to possible nuclear radiation incidents.

“They are all seized, all this infrastructure is broken,” he said. Kotin added that staff are being pressured to sign a contract to work for Russia’s Rosenergoatom, the nuclear plant operations subsidiary of Atomenergoprom, itself a subsidiary of state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom.

Kotin said about 4,500 staff work at the Zaporizhzhia station. Of those, 2,000 have not signed contracts with Rosenergoatom and are prevented by Russia from travelling to the facility. The other 1,500 staff signed contracts with Rosenergoatom and are no longer receiving salaries from Energoatom.

Kotin claimed Russia was bribing Ukrainians to work at the station because the six Soviet-designed plants have been upgraded with aid from Europe to the point where Russian staff do not have the expertise to operate or maintain them.

“The units are really very different,” Kotin said. “Nothing like this has been done in Russia. Now we have much safer plants. Therefore, when they came in, they spent six months studying the technology used in our units.

“You need to learn all the time and you need to operate all the time. If you don't operate a power unit for three months, you can't just come back and operate it.”

In a new report on the safety and security situation at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities the IAEA was blunt. “Shelling, air attacks, reduced staffing levels, difficult working conditions, frequent losses of offsite power, disruption to the supply chain and the unavailability of spare parts, as well as deviations from planned activities and normal operations, have impacted each nuclear facility and many activities involving radioactive sources in Ukraine,” it said.

Background To Crisis At Zaporizhzhia

The crisis at Zaporizhzhia when Russian forces seized the facility on 4 March 2022. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Ukraine reported that the facility’s training centre – a few hundred metres from the reactor units – had been hit by a projectile and a localised fire had broken out that was later extinguished. Representatives of Rosatom arrived at the site a few days after the Russian military took control.

Earlier, on 24 February Russian forces had taken control of all facilities at the Chernobyl site. They withdrew from Chernobyl on 31 March, but stayed at Zaporizhzhia. Russian nuclear specialists from Rosenergoatom arrived at Zaporizhzhia on 29 April. Ukraine told the IAEA that personnel were “working under unbelievable pressure”. From 5-7 August, Zaporizhzhia was targeted by “severe shelling”.

On 16 October, the IAEA learned that a Moscow-based Russian state-run operating organisation was created for Zaporizhzhia, and Russia announced it had taken control of the facility and was now taking significant operational decisions.

Soon afterwards, Kotin announced he had transferred the administration of Zaporizhzhia to Kyiv. He said he made the decision in the face of Russian attempts to formalise control of Zaporizhzhia.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said attempts by Russia to take control of the station are a “crime” that further increases the risk and threats to nuclear security caused by Russia’s occupation of the station, which is about 120 km from the city of Zaporizhzhia and sits in Russian occupied territory along the Dnipro River.

The ministry said Moscow’s attempt to take control of was “illegal”. It said: “We consider the relevant decree of the president of the Russian Federation in this regard null and void.”

Ukraine ‘Does Not Control Technical Situation’

Kotin has now said the “legitimate management” of Zaporizhzhia remains in Kyiv with a team of 120 staff including accounting, human resources and finance. “All the servers are here and they [the Russians] have no access to these servers,” he said. But he said Ukraine does not control the technical situation”.

In January, Energoatom said all six units at Zaporizhzhia were shut down, with Russian forces “blocking their activation”.

When a reactor is in cold shutdown, the fuel and control rods can be safely removed and exchanged, and maintenance can be performed. However, once a reactor has gone into a cold shutdown, it requires more time and energy to restart the reaction than if it had been hot.

The shutdown has removed a huge element of risk. The Zaporizhzhia units are pressurised water reactors and need constant cooling. Cold shutdown is the state in which you do not need to constantly run the primary cooling pumps at the same level to circulate the cooling water in the primary cooling loop.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the reactors will now require less power for cooling. If the plant loses offsite power, the operators will not have to worry about cooling an operating reactor with backup diesel generators.

Cold shutdown also relieves plant operators of a considerable amount of their workload monitoring the reactors amid the ongoing uncertainties around the site. This substantially reduces the potential for human error.

In territory controlled by Ukraine, eight out of nine nuclear power plants are operating at maximum nominal capacity and providing about 55% of the total electricity consumption in the country, Energoatom said recently.

The largest volumes of electricity are being generated by the South Ukrainian nuclear power station, which has three units.

Khmelnitski has two units and Rovno has four units.

One unit is shut down for scheduled maintenance, but Energoatom did not say which.

Kotin Renews Calls For Sanctions

Kotin also renewed his call for sanctions against Russia’s nuclear industry, a call already made on a number of occasions by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Unconfirmed press reports have said the European Commission has abandoned plans to sanction Russia’s nuclear sector or its representatives in its next sanctions package.

The EU’s latest sanctions packages are divided into multiple parts: new rules that target specific sectors, such as aviation or military, and lists that impose visa restrictions and asset freezes on individuals and companies – but none include the nuclear sector, reports said.

The commission initially told EU countries that it would try to draw up sanctions targeting Russia's civil nuclear sector. Ahead of a recent meeting of EU leaders, Zelenskiy urged the bloc at least to issue sanctions against Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom.

Kotin’s latest comments on the situation in Ukraine come as the IAEA faces testing negotiations with Russia and Ukraine on two fronts – plans for a nuclear safety and security protection zone around Zaporizhzhia and the rotation of agency staff at the facility.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi said signs of combat activities near Zaporizhzhia further underlined the vital importance of agreeing and implementing a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the site as soon as possible. A zone would help shield the station by making sure it is not targeted and also not used for attacks from the site, he said.

On the staff changeover, Grossi appealed for constructive efforts by all parties to allow this month’s rotation of agency experts, which he said had already been delayed. “They are helping to ensure nuclear safety and security during the military conflict,” he said.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the IAEA was “disrupting” the scheduled changeover “without good reason”. Ukraine has blamed Russia for the impasse.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi inspecting damage at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in September 2022. Courtesy IAEA.

Date: Saturday, 25 February 2023
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