What's In Blue

Ukraine: Briefing on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

On Monday afternoon (15 April), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. Slovenia and the US—the co-penholders on political issues in Ukraine—supported by France, requested the meeting, which will focus on the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in the city of Enerhodar. It appears that Russia expressed approval for holding the meeting, noting the alarming nature of the situation at the nuclear power plant. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is the anticipated briefer. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Monday’s briefing will be the Council’s seventh meeting on the issue of nuclear safety and security in Ukraine since the start of the war in February 2022. Three of the previous meetings were held at Russia’s request, while the other three were initiated by other Council members, including Ecuador and France. The most recent discussion, convened as a private meeting, took place on 25 January. (For more information, see our 24 January What’s in Blue story.)

The ZNPP, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, supplied 30 percent of Ukraine’s electricity prior to Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Russian forces have had control over the ZNPP since March 2022. In September 2022, the ZNPP stopped generating electricity for the national grid. On 1 September 2022, the IAEA established a Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) to assess the physical damage to the ZNPP’s facilities, determine whether the main and back-up safety and security systems were functional, and evaluate the staff’s working conditions, in addition to performing urgent safeguarding activities on the site. Since its establishment, the ISAMZ has conducted over 15 expert missions.

At a 30 May 2023 Security Council briefing, Grossi presented five concrete principles needed to ensure nuclear safety and security at the ZNPP, which he asked both parties to the conflict to observe. These principles are: avoiding the use of the plant as a launch site for attacks or as a target; ensuring that the plant is not used for storing heavy weapons or as a base for military personnel; safeguarding off-site power sources; protecting all crucial structures, systems, and components from attacks or sabotage; and refraining from any actions that would compromise these principles.

The nuclear safety and security situation at the ZNPP continues to be fragile and dangerous. While five of the plant’s six nuclear 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 eight 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, with the most recent such incident occurring in December 2023.

On 7 April, the IAEA reported that drone strikes hit the ZNPP, marking the first time since November 2022 that the nuclear power plant was directly targeted during the hostilities. The IAEA said that the attack represented a clear violation of the five principles outlined by Grossi in May 2023. It also confirmed that there was no damage to the plant’s critical nuclear safety or security systems. Moscow has accused Ukraine of carrying out the attacks, while Kyiv denied any involvement, alleging that Russia had conducted a false flag operation. At the separate requests of Russia and Ukraine, the IAEA Board of Governors convened for an extraordinary session yesterday (11 April) to discuss the incident.

At Monday’s meeting, Grossi is expected to provide an overview of the situation at the ZNPP and highlight how the ongoing hostilities are jeopardising the seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security in an armed conflict, which include physical integrity and reliable external power. (The seven pillars were outlined by Grossi at a special meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors on 2 March 2022.) He is likely to acknowledge that, while the recent attack did not compromise the nuclear safety and security at the ZNPP, it significantly heightened the risk of a nuclear incident in Ukraine. In his address to the IAEA Board of Governors yesterday, Grossi called for maximum military restraint and strict adherence to the five principles for protecting the ZNPP. He also appealed to the international community to help de-escalate the “very serious situation” at the site.

Council members are likely to present a common position on the importance of the safety and security of the ZNPP and other nuclear sites in Ukraine and express their support for the IAEA’s efforts in this regard. They might also urge the parties to abide by the IAEA’s seven pillars and Grossi’s five principles for ensuring nuclear safety and security. However, they will voice diverging opinions about which side is responsible for instigating attacks at and around the site.

Several Council members—including the US and European members—are likely to condemn the seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian forces and call on Moscow to hand back control of the ZNPP to Ukraine. These members might reference previous resolutions on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards in Ukraine, which were adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors in 2022 and 2023. The most recent resolution, adopted on 28 September 2023, calls for the urgent withdrawal of all unauthorised military personnel from the ZNPP and for control of the plant to be transferred to the competent Ukrainian authorities.

Russia, for its part, is likely to accuse Ukraine of compromising the safety of the ZNPP and its personnel. During a press stakeout on 8 April, Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vassily Nebenzia alleged that Ukraine has reverted “to the tactics of striking the plant itself”. Arguing that Russian authorities are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of the plant, Nebenzia urged the international community to condemn the attacks on the ZNPP. Ukraine, on the other hand, is likely to assert that Russia has violated fundamental international principles of nuclear safety and security by illegally occupying the plant and incorporating it into its military strategy.

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