What's In Blue

Ukraine: Briefing on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Tomorrow afternoon (30 May), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the situation in Ukraine under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. The meeting, which was requested by Ecuador and France, is expected to focus on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in the city of Enerhodar. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to brief. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Tomorrow’s briefing will be the Council’s fourth meeting on the ZNPP since the start of the war in February 2022. The previous three meetings were held at Russia’s request, the latest of which took place on 6 September 2022.

The ZNPP, which is the largest nuclear power station in Europe, had provided 30 percent of Ukraine’s electricity prior to Russia’s invasion last year. Russian forces have had control over the ZNPP since March 2022, while Ukrainian technicians and experts from Russia’s state-owned atomic energy agency Rosatom continue to operate the facility. In recent weeks, shelling around the site—for which both Kyiv and Moscow blame each other—has raised concerns about a possible catastrophe.

Although the plant’s reactors have been in cold shutdown since September 2022, a significant amount of radioactive material remains at the ZNPP. Moreover, the plant has lost external power seven times since the start of the war due to shelling in the area, prompting its emergency diesel generators to activate in order to facilitate the uninterrupted cooling of the plant’s reactors and spent fuel pools. The ZNPP currently relies on only one of its four external power lines for operation.

Earlier this month, the de-facto authorities controlling the Russian-held part of the Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine announced the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from Enerhodar, indicating an escalation of military activity in the area. On 7 May, Yevgeny Balitsky, the area’s Russian-installed governor, posted on Telegram that over 1,600 residents from around the ZNPP had been “placed in the temporary accommodation centre” in Berdyansk, a port city in the southeast of the Zaporizhzhia region. In a 12 May press statement, the IAEA acknowledged that while the ZNPP has enough essential operating staff for its current reduced level of operations, the lack of maintenance personnel “could negatively impact” the plant’s safety and security.

More recently, Ukrainian officials have raised concerns that Russia is planning a potential false flag operation targeting the ZNPP, with the aim of hindering Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts. On 26 May, the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense issued a press statement alleging that Russia is “preparing large-scale provocations to create a center of radiation danger” at the ZNPP in “the nearest hours”. The statement claimed that Russian forces would carry out an attack on the territory of the ZNPP before alleging “the leakage of radioactive substances”, a claim that Moscow would then leverage to secure a ceasefire “for the regrouping of…personnel and to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive”.

Kyiv has previously accused Russia of using the nuclear plant as a military base for the storage of military equipment, weapons, and explosives. On 21 May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasised to Group of Seven (G7) leaders in Japan that “a disaster at the nuclear power plant occupied by Russia” would have regional repercussions beyond Ukraine’s borders.

In late March, Grossi travelled to Ukraine, making his second visit to the ZNPP since the war’s outset. He met with Zelenskyy on 27 March to discuss his proposal for the plant’s safety and security. Grossi also presented his proposal to senior Russian officials in early April. In a 30 March statement, the IAEA noted that Grossi’s proposal had evolved from one seeking to establish a safety and security protection zone around the plant, encompassing a ceasefire zone within a specific radius, to one focusing on outlining actions that the parties should avoid to promote the plant’s safety. According to media reports, the proposal entails several commitments from Kyiv and Moscow, including refraining from stationing heavy military equipment and troops at the site, banning any attack from and toward the power plant, protecting the plant’s staff, and safeguarding its security systems.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Grossi is expected to provide an overview of the situation at the ZNPP.  He is likely to highlight how the ongoing hostilities are affecting the seven pillars for nuclear safety and security, which include physical integrity and reliable external power. Grossi may stress that the situation at the ZNPP remains perilous, especially considering the heightened military presence in the region. Following his visit to the ZNPP in late March, Grossi said that “military activity is increasing in this whole region”, which is “facing perhaps a more dangerous phase in terms of the ongoing conflict”.

Grossi may also refer to the challenging staffing situation at the ZNPP and the difficult working conditions for remaining ZNPP personnel and their families. In a 13 April press release, the IAEA acknowledged that over a third of the original staff have left the area. Moreover, only a quarter of the maintenance staff remain on site. This has reportedly led to a reduction in the scope of maintenance at the ZNPP.

Grossi is also expected to present his latest proposal on the plant’s safety and security. Council members are likely to express a common position on the importance of the safety and security of the ZNPP and express support for Grossi’s proposal. However, they will present diverging opinions about which side is responsible for instigating attacks 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.

Russia is expected to deny those allegations and claim that all equipment and technologies stored at the ZNPP are used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It may also express support for Grossi’s efforts to promote the safety and security of the ZNPP. Russia may argue that Kyiv is attempting to regain control of the ZNPP through the use of force, impeding progress in reaching an agreement.

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