International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi was in the United States from 26-28 October to attend the IAEA’s International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century in Washington DC. During his visit, he also briefed the United Nations Security Council in New York on what he described as the “extremely fragile and dangerous” nuclear safety and security situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).

The ZNPP site has been controlled by Russian forces since March. Until recently, operational decisions were taken by its Ukraine staff, but Russia has announced it has taken control of the facility and is now taking those decisions. In recent months the site has been beset with power outages caused by shelling, putting nuclear safety and security at the plant at risk.

In a regular IAEA update on the situation in Ukraine, Grossi said that engineers at ZNPP had been working to stabilise the facility’s fragile external power supplies following repeated outages earlier in October that forced it to temporarily rely on its emergency diesel generators for electricity.

While the nuclear safety and security situation at ZNPP remains precarious, the plant over the past 10 days had received the power it needs for reactor cooling and other essential safety and security functions directly and without interruption from the national grid, Grossi said, citing information from the IAEA experts present at the site.

ZNPP also has back-up power available – if needed – through the switchyard of the nearby thermal power station. The switchyard was damaged by shelling on 19 October but repaired the following day. In recent days, the back-up power arrangements have also become more robust; a second interconnection at the 330 kilovolt (kV) thermal power plant switchyard was put into operation, IAEA noted. This establishes a more reliable connection to the outside 330 kV power line to deliver off-site electricity to the ZNPP, if the main external connection were to fail again.

Even with these improvements, Grossi stressed that the ZNPP’s power situation remained vulnerable – only one 750 kV external power line is operating compared with four before the current military conflict in Ukraine – and could deteriorate at any moment. Earlier the ZNPP’s connection to the 750 kV line was cut three times in ten days, with the last such power loss occurring on 17 October. During two of those off-site power cuts, the plant’s emergency diesel generators provided the required electricity, as the back-up system was also down.

While there had been no shelling in the area of the ZNPP site over the past week, military activities in the vicinity of the site continue. “This is absolutely no time for complacency. The situation could change dramatically at any point” Grossi said. Therefore, the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the facility remains of paramount importance. In recent weeks Grossi has engaged in high-level talks in Ukraine and the Russian Federation in this issue.

At the ZNPP, Ukrainian staff continue to operate the plant, but there are more Russian technical staff now working at the site, and Russia has now formally taken control of the facility, including taking significant operational decisions, following the creation of a Russian state operating organisation for the site based in Moscow. This came after the region voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to become part of Russia. This was not recognised by the US and Europe or by the UN and Grossi has made it clear that he still regards the ZNPP as a Ukrainian plant. He expressed concern about possible confusion regarding the chain of command for the plant’s operation, which could negatively affect nuclear safety and security.

For example, senior Ukrainian operating staff had planned to restart reactor unit 5 but it currently remains in a hot shutdown mode as Russian officials have not agreed to the restart. The other five units remain in cold shutdown. While unit 5 provides steam for site operations, plant staff say another unit will also need to be placed in hot shutdown to supply all the site’s needs in the future. The site is awaiting permission from Moscow to undertake this. 

Regarding recent reports about the ZNPP’s dry spent fuel storage facility, Grossi said IAEA was aware of work that is being carried out in order to upgrade the physical protection system there. The IAEA team at the site was informed about this work - including technical details – on 14 October. He confirmed that the IAEA continues to have access to this facility. This was in response to allegations by Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom that “the Russian military is conducting these works by themselves, in secret. Ukrainian personnel and the IAEA representatives present at the ZNPP site are not allowed to the construction site.”

Grossi confirmed that IAEA inspectors would carry out verification activities at two locations in Ukraine this week, following a written request from the Ukraine government to send inspectors there. Ukraine’s request was issued after the Russian Federation made allegations about activities related to the possible production of “dirty bombs” at the two locations.

“The IAEA inspectors will conduct independent verification at these locations in accordance with Ukraine’s safeguards agreement to detect any diversion of nuclear material under safeguards, any undeclared production or processing of nuclear material at the two locations and assure that there are no undeclared nuclear material and activities,” Director General Grossi said. “As soon as our verifications are completed, we will assess the findings and report our conclusions in line with our standard safeguards practice.

Later on 27 October Grossi left Washington for New York to brief the Security Council on the situation. This was his fourth briefing since the conflict began and the first delivered in person rather than virtually. The meeting was also attended by Ukraine, which is currently not a Security Council member.

Grossi told the Council that progress had been made in high-level consultations with Ukraine and Russia on establishing an “indispensable” nuclear safety and security protection zone around ZNPP. He said “we’re not far from” an agreement and “it is in no one’s interest to have a major nuclear accident.” He also informed the Council that inspectors were on their way to two locations in Ukraine to carry out nuclear safeguards verification activities. Earlier, Russian officials had identified these as Ukraine’s Vostochny Mining and Processing Plant in the Yellow Waters of the Dnipropetrovsk region, as well as the Kiev Institute for Nuclear Research. Other officials had also mentioned and the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

In a press conference after the Security Council meeting, Grossi said: “We have to undertake this work at these two facilities mentioned as places where allegedly work to divert nuclear material for the fabrication of a radiological device is taking place.” He also said that in addition to ZNPP, IAEA planned to deploy more inspectors at Ukraine’s other NPP sites in Rivne, Khmelnitsky, South Ukraine and Chernobyl.

In reply to a question suggesting that nuclear material could be found at many other sites such as hospitals, he replied: “We cannot start running hysterically to any place that might have a cobalt-60 source. In this case there has been a very clear indication from a very high official of the Russian Federation about clandestine work to divert nuclear material.”

He noted that one of the sites concerned had already been visited by the IAEA in September – and R&D facility near Kiev – with good results. “We are going to revisit it in this case to undertake a different kind of work because are inspections generally look for nuclear materials – enriched uranium, plutonium, thorium. In this case there is mention of certain isotopes – caesium and strontium – so we will perform a different kind of work to determine whether the fuel there has been reprocesses in some way to extract these. It’s going to be very detailed work.” [The Institute has an operation 10~MWt WWR-M research reactor – the IAEA Research Reactor Database does not specify what fuel it uses].

On the last day of the IAEA conference in Washington, Grossi also attended a meeting of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he gave a keynote speech. On the subject of ZNPP he said he was not surprised by what he had seen there. “I was not surprised, but I was moved by seeing people work in those conditions. I was moved by seeing those splendid reactors being shelled. I was moved by seeing people from Energodar coming to me as if I could give them answers and the reassurance they so badly deserved.”

He stressed the importance of establishing a protective zone. “How can you shell a NPP for God’s sake! And it is happening. In my negotiation in both countries now I meet with people in green (khaki). And I tell them that whatever their military objectives or views, they do not need to storm or shell a NPP to achieve any of their objectives – legitimate or illegitimate.”

Meanwhile Vladimir Rogov, an official of the Main Council of the Zaporozhye region administration, reported that on 29 October, Ukrainian troops had again attempt to land by speedboat to storm ZNPP but had been pushed back by Russian troops. The Russian Defence Ministry confirmed an attempted landing by a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group. This was the fourth attempt to storm the plant since 1 September. Rogov also reported on his Telegram channel that employees of ZNPP had been receiving threats from the Ukrainian authorities, stating that they would face reprisals and prison for collaborating with Russia when Ukraine retakes control of the plant.

Image: IAEA DG Rafael Grossi (left) speaks to an expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the last day of the IAEA conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century which recently took place in Washington DC (courtesy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Date: Tuesday, 01 November 2022
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