An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) set out for Ukraine on the evening of 29 August to ensure nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Earlier that day IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi wrote on his Twitter page: "The IAEA support and assistance mission is already on its way to the Zaporizhzhia NPP. I am proud to be leading this mission, which will arrive at the ZNPP later this week.” He added that "it is necessary to protect the security of Ukraine and Europe's largest nuclear facility”.

ZNPP has been controlled by Russian forces since March but is operated by its Ukrainian staff. The site has come under repeated and increasingly intense shelling, and on 25 August temporarily lost connection to its last remaining operational 750 kilovolt (kV) external power line. Russia has repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of attacking the plant, while Ukraine insists Russian forces are responsible and are stationing military hardware there.

The ISAMZ will bring clarity to the situation and help address any contradictory information about the status of the facility, its operation and the damage it has sustained. Addressing United Nations Security Council earlier in August about the deteriorating situation at ZNPP Grossi said: “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.”

IAEA said that, after reaching ZNPP later this week, ISAMZ will assess the physical damage to the facilities, determine the functionality of the main and backup safety and security systems, and evaluate the working conditions of the control room staff. At the same time, the mission will undertake urgent safeguards activities to verify that nuclear material is used only for peaceful purposes.       

The 14-member team includes high-level IAEA official as well as experts from different countries. As well as Grossi, the IAEA staff include: Jacek Bylica, IAEA Chief of Cabinet; Lydie Evrard, IAEA Deputy Director-General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security; Massimo Aparo, IAEA Deputy Director-General and Head of the Department of Safeguards; Diego Candano Laris, Senior Advisor to the Director-General; Florin Abazi, IAEA Senior Inspector; and Fredrik Dahl, IAEA Spokesperson, Office of Public Information and Communication.

Image: Vienna International Airport, Vienna, Austria. Florin Abazi, IAEA Senior Inspector, hands out protective vests to members of the IAEA expert mission team in preparation for their flight to Ukraine (Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA)

The IAEA did not name the other experts but a New York Times report on 27 August said they would be from “mostly neutral countries” such as Poland, Lithuania, China, Serbia, Albania, France, Italy, Jordan, Mexico and North Macedonia. Neither the US nor the UK will be involved as Russia had dismissed those countries as “unfairly biased” over their support for the government in Kyiv, the paper said. France24 said on 29 August that the team would include “experts who are considered pro-Ukrainian – such as Polish and Latvian experts – but also experts from countries considered pro-Russian, from Serbia or other countries considered close to Moscow.”

The Wall Street Journal said on 29 August that team would be in Ukraine from 31 August until 3 September and would take spare parts, radiation monitoring equipment and other equipment to ZNPP.

IAEA has been unable to visit ZNPP since before the conflict began in February. Moscow, which took control of the plant in early March, has repeatedly called for an IAEA inspection, but Petro Kotin, head of the Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom, refused to contemplate this as long as Russia was in control. However, after weeks of international diplomacy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to IAEA mission provided that it travelled there through Ukrainian territory. Russia initially argued that the team should reach the plant through Russian territory, noting that travelling from Kyiv would entail passing through the frontline putting IAEA personnel at risk. However, following further international mediation, Russia agreed that the team could travel via Kyiv.

France has played a key role in bringing about the visit. Grossi met with President Emmanuel Macron on 25 August. The previous week Macron had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir, while Ukrainian President Zelensky had talks in Lviv with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey also subsequently hosted a meeting in Istanbul between Gross and the Director General of Russia’s Rosatom State Corporation Alexey Likhachev who was accompanied by Alexander Trembitsky, Head of Russian nuclear regulator Rostechnadzor, and Mikhail Ulyanov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to International Organisations in Vienna.

Image: At the break of dawn the IAEA expert mission team boarded their plane to Kyiv, their first destination to Ukraine (Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA)

Meanwhile attacks on ZNPP continue. Grossi said on 28 August that Ukraine had informed IAEA of further shelling but it said all safety systems remained operational and there had been no increase in radiation levels. IAEA said ZNPP had access to off-site electricity after the plant temporarily lost connection to its last remaining operational 750 kilovolt (kV) external power line on 25 August which caused the two operating units at the plant to be disconnected from the electricity grid. The other four units at ZNPP had been earlier and remained in shutdown.

However two units were reconnected the following day. Ukraine told the IAEA that the ZNPP was now connected both to a 750 kV power line forming part of the national electricity grid and to a 330 kV line linked to a nearby thermal power facility that can also provide off-site power if required, which had remained operational throughout. ZNPP normally has four external 750 kV power lines, but three of them were lost earlier during the conflict.

Grossi said shelling had hit the area of the plant’s two special buildings, both located about 100 metres from the reactor buildings, as well as one overpass area. Those buildings house facilities including water treatment plants, equipment repair shops and waste management facilities. Damage on some water pipelines at the site had been repaired. All measurements of radioactivity at the ZNPP site were within normal range, and there was no indication of any hydrogen leakage, Grossi said, citing information from Ukraine.

According to an “urgent briefing” on 27 August from Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov ZNPP had been shelled by heavy artillery three times the previous day. "A total of 17 shells were fired, four of which hit the roof of Special Building 1, where 168 assemblies with American nuclear fuel from Westinghouse are stored. Another 10 shells exploded 30 metres from the dry storage facility for used nuclear fuel and three other shells exploded in the area of Special Building 2, which houses the TVEL fresh nuclear fuel storage facility and the solid radioactive waste storage facility."

The same day, the Russian Permanent Mission to the UN Security Council submitted evidence of shelling of ZNPP by the Ukrainian military. “We have distributed a letter to the members of the UN Security Council about the presentation of the Russian Defence Ministry on the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia NPP by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on 25 August, " the permanent mission said on Twitter.

Shelling intensified over the following days and on 29 August Zaporozhye Region’s administration said on Telegram that shells had damaged roof of the fresh fuel storage and posted a photo of a hole in the roof allegedly caused by the strike. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Ukraine of doing everything possible to prevent the IAEA mission from visiting.

Image: IAEA's Support and Assistance team (Photo Credit: IAEA)

Date: Wednesday, 31 August 2022
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