What's In Blue

Posted Tue 6 Sep 2022

Ukraine: Briefing on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

This afternoon (6 September), the Security Council will hold an open briefing on the situation in Ukraine under the agenda item “threats to international peace and security”. The meeting, which was requested by Russia, is expected to focus on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in the city of Enerhodar. Secretary-General António Guterres and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi are expected to brief. Germany and Ukraine are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

This will be the Council’s third meeting on the ZNPP, following meetings on the matter on 11 and 23 August, both of which were requested by Russia. (For more information, see our 11 August and 23 August What’s in Blue stories.) The ZNPP, which is the largest nuclear power station in Europe, had provided 30 percent of Ukraine’s electricity prior to Russia’s invasion in February. Russian forces have had control over the ZNPP since March, while Ukrainian technicians continue to operate the facility. In recent weeks, shelling around the site—for which both Ukraine and Russia blame each other—has raised concerns about a possible catastrophe.

At today’s meeting, Grossi is expected to describe the findings of the IAEA’s 1 September visit to the ZNPP. The visit by the 14-member team of IAEA experts was negotiated for several weeks, amid a lack of agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the modalities for such a visit and precarious security conditions around the plant.

Speaking to reporters on 2 September, Grossi said that none of what the agency refers to as the seven pillars of nuclear safety—which include physical integrity, reliable external power, and availability of spare parts—are intact at the ZNPP. He noted that the plant’s physical integrity has been “violated several times”, adding that most of the damage to the ZNPP occurred during shelling in August. Grossi warned that the gravest risk to the ZNPP is physical damage to equipment, from shelling, that could lead to a release of radiation, adding that disruptions in external power to cool reactor cores could lead to a meltdown.

The IAEA released a report today (6 September) about the nuclear safety, security and safeguards situation at several nuclear facilities in Ukraine, which includes an overview of the findings of the IAEA’s 1 September visit. The report determines that although the ongoing shelling around the ZNPP “has not yet triggered a nuclear emergency”, it continues to “represent a constant threat to nuclear safety and security with potential impact on critical safety functions that may lead to radiological consequences with great safety significance”. It calls for the immediate cessation of shelling of the site and in its vicinity and says that to facilitate the plant’s secure and safe operations, all relevant parties need to agree on the establishment of “a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the ZNPP”. In the report, the IAEA expresses its readiness to start consultations with the sides on the establishment of such a protection zone.

Since the 1 September visit, two IAEA experts have remained at the ZNPP as part of the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ). The ISAMZ will “assess the physical damage to the plant’s facilities, determine the functionality of the main and back-up safety and security systems and evaluate the staff’s working conditions, in addition to performing urgent safeguards activities on the site”, according to the IAEA. Grossi highlighted the importance of the IAEA’s continued presence at the site, noting that it will help provide an impartial assessment when issues arise at the plant. In a 3 September statement, Grossi underscored his ongoing concern about the situation at the ZNPP, while adding that the IAEA’s presence “will be of paramount importance in helping to stabilise the situation”. Grossi may reiterate these messages at today’s meeting, while emphasising the need to demilitarise the area around the ZNPP to facilitate the IAEA’s continued presence there.

At today’s meeting, Grossi may also provide an update about recent security incidents at the plant. Shelling around the ZNPP has continued despite the ISAMZ’s presence, and yesterday (5 September) led to an outbreak of fire in the plant. Previous shelling has damaged the plant’s connection to four high-voltage external power lines, forcing it to rely on a lower-voltage reserve line to power the cooling equipment needed to prevent meltdowns. As a result of yesterday’s fire, the reserve power line was disconnected, leading to the plant’s disconnection from Ukraine’s national power grid. According to the IAEA, the reserve line was not damaged in the fire and will be re-connected once the fire is extinguished. It added that the “ZNPP continues to receive the electricity it needs for safety from its sole operating reactor”. At the time of writing, it was unclear whether the fire was extinguished and when the reserve power line would be reconnected.

Council members are likely to express a common position on the importance of ensuring the safety of the ZNPP. However, they will present diverging opinions about which side is responsible for instigating attacks in and around the site. The US and European Council members are expected to condemn the seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian forces and to call on Moscow to hand back control of the ZNPP to Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies have accused Russia of deploying heavy weaponry at the site and using it as a staging ground to launch attacks against Ukraine, knowing that the latter will not fire back out of fear of risking the integrity of the plant. Moscow has denied such allegations and blamed Kyiv for attempting to recapture the area by force—claims that Ukraine has denied.

The issue of the IAEA’s presence at the ZNPP is also likely to be discussed at today’s meeting. Several members may express support for a permanent presence of the ISAMZ at the site. These members may seek further information from Grossi about the necessary security conditions to facilitate this presence.

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