The international nuclear watchdog condemns Russia for the occupation of a nuclear power plant and demands an immediate withdrawal.
Since the early days of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces have occupied Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, where persistent shelling could have catastrophic consequences.
In the event of a nuclear emergency, any sovereign state can request assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In February of this year, Ukraine did just that.
The IAEA, an independent international organization within the United Nations, has condemned the Russian occupation and sought to promote the safety and security of Ukraine’s power plant through diplomatic missions to the United Nations, organ resolutions policies and the creation of timely industry standards on how to operate facilities during military conflicts.
“We are playing with fire,” IAEA Director General Raphael Grossi said as he called for the demilitarization of the nuclear power plant and the creation of a nuclear safety and security zone. The IAEA Board of Governors – a decision-making body made up of representatives from 35 countries – also passed a resolution by an overwhelming majority calling on Russia to cease all military operations at the nuclear plant due to the dangers posed to Ukraine. , neighboring States, and the international community.
And yet continued bombardment directed at or from the nuclear plant has periodically disabled the facility’s connection to the Ukrainian power grid, risking a radioactive leak.
Although plant personnel have shut down all nuclear reactors, the remaining nuclear material that had fueled these reactors continues to generate significant amounts of heat. If the plant is unable to cool the reactors, which will happen if the plant loses power, the heat of nuclear decay could melt the vessels containing the reactor cores, leading to nuclear meltdown and possibly widespread radioactive poisoning. .
Recognizing the unprecedented nature of a military occupation of a nuclear power plant, the IAEA has for the first time developed standards relating to nuclear safety in the context of armed conflict. These standards are based on seven pillars, which include the continuous assessment and monitoring of the physical integrity of a facility, the ability of personnel to perform their duties, and offsite power supply.
IAEA experts say, however, that the recent bombing of the Zaporizhzhya power plant violated virtually all pillars of nuclear safety and security.
To assess the situation and attempt to restore the seven pillars, the IAEA Director General led an expert mission from the agency to Zaporizhzhya in September. Performing “urgent safeguards activities” on the plant’s facilities, the IAEA has since stationed two experts at the plant indefinitely for independent observation of the situation.
“Ukrainian armed forces continue to bomb the territory,” said Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Vasiley Nebenzya, challenging Ukraine’s ownership of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and accusing Ukraine of the “real risk of a radiological accident” which could lead to “catastrophic consequences for the entire European continent”. Notwithstanding claims that Russian forces have harassed Ukrainian personnel, Representative Nebenzya suggested that there is a “healthy working atmosphere” between Ukrainian factory personnel and the Russian armed forces, saying that “no one is harassing nobody”.
However, some international nuclear experts and agencies disagree with Rep. Nebenzya’s characterization of Ukraine’s culpability. The World Nuclear Association, an industry association with a global mandate to promote nuclear energy, along with eight other nuclear energy organizations, called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Zaporizhzhya and supported the Seven Pillars of IAEA Nuclear Safety in Armed Conflict.
The directors of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, an international initiative led by seven advanced democracies, also reaffirmed Ukrainian ownership of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.
Although the IAEA’s continued presence inside an active combat zone is seemingly unprecedented, the IAEA is no stranger to working in war zones. The IAEA inspected nuclear facilities in Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War as well as in war zones around Yugoslavia. But former IAEA deputy director general Olli Heinonen said the situation at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is more serious given that the plant is on the front line of a conflict in a more intense war.
Organized as an agency dedicated to “atoms for peace”, the IAEA finds itself in extraordinary wartime circumstances. But thanks to the efforts of the agency’s director general, board of governors and nuclear experts, the IAEA remains committed to the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine.