UN atomic watchdog urges safety zone around Ukraine nuclear power plant

The UN atomic watchdog agency urged Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday to establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid mounting fears the fighting could trigger a catastrophe in a country still haunted by the Chornobyl disaster.

“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warned the UN Security Council, days after leading an inspection visit to the plant.

In a detailed report on its visit, the IAEA said shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant should stop immediately. “This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant, it said.

UN chief wants demilitarized zone

At the Security Council meeting, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres likewise demanded that Russian and Ukrainian forces commit to halting all military activity around the plant and agree on a “demilitarized perimeter.”

Guterres said this would include “a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it.”

Asked by reporters about establishing a demilitarized zone, Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the proposal “is not serious.”

“The Ukrainians will immediately step in and ruin the whole thing. We’re defending, we’re protecting the station,” he said. “In fact, it is not militarized. There is no equipment at the station.”

He said the only Russians there are guarding the plant.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered qualified praise for the IAEA’s report.

In his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskyy praised the report’s “clear references” to the presence of Russian troops and military equipment at the plant. He also called for a more robust mandate for the IAEA and urged the agency to explicitly back Kyiv’s long-held claim that Russian forces need to withdraw from the facility and its surroundings.

A Russian serviceman guards an area of ​​the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, May 1, 2022. (The Associated Press)

Plant staff under constant stress, pressure

Shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear plant on Tuesday, a day after it was again knocked off Ukraine’s electrical grid and put in the precarious position of relying on its own power to run its safety systems.

Normally the plant relies on power from the outside to run the critical cooling systems that keep its reactors and its spent fuel from overheating. A loss of those cooling systems could lead to a meltdown or other release of radiation.

“For radiation protection professionals, for the Ukrainian and even the Russian people, and those of central Europe, this is a very worrying time — and that’s an understatement,” said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Sussex in England.

Russian-installed officials accused Ukrainian forces of shelling Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located, while the Ukrainians said Kremlin forces attacked the city of Nikopol. The explosion left the city of 53,000 cut off from its power and water supplies.

World leaders have called for the demilitarization of the plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war but is being run by Ukrainian engineers.

The IAEA noted that on several occasions, the plant lost, fully or in part, its off-site power supply because of military activity in the area. The UN agency said a backup power supply line should be re-established and asked that “all military activities that may affect the power supply systems end.”

In addition, the IAEA warned that the team operating the plant is “under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available” — a situation that could “lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety.”

Members of the IAEA walk while inspecting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Enerhodar on Thursday. Ukrainian intelligence reported that residents of Enerhodar were fleeing the city out of fear. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via The Associated Press)

The IAEA also said the staff must get permission from the Russian occupying forces to reach the cooling ponds where spent fuel is kept. Grossi expressed concern that that could hamper the staff’s response in an emergency.

The report said the team saw Russian military personnel, vehicles and equipment at various locations, including several military trucks on the floor of two turbine halls.

Two inspectors from the IAEA mission remained at the plant, a decision welcomed by Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

“There are Russian troops now who don’t understand what’s happening, don’t assess the risks correctly,” Podolyak said. “There is a number of our workers there, who need some kind of protection, people from the international community standing by their side and telling [Russian troops]: ‘Don’t touch these people, let them work.’ “

Munitions on site at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

‘Any repairs are impossible at this point’

On Monday, the IAEA said Ukrainian authorities reported that the plant’s last transmission line linking it to the nation’s power grid was disconnected to allow workers to put out a fire caused by shelling.

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told Ukrainian television: “Any repairs are impossible at this point — there are ongoing hostilities around the plant.”

Mycle Schneider, an independent analyst on nuclear energy in Canada, said that means the plant was probably functioning in “island mode,” or producing electricity just for its own operations.

“Island mode is a very shaky, unstable and unreliable way to provide continuous power supply to a nuclear plant,” Schneider said, noting that “many if not most islanding attempts fail.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant has diesel emergency backup generators to produce power to run the place if the outside source is disrupted. But Schneider said the plant’s operators may have decided to go into island mode first.

If the plant turns to the diesel generators as a last resort and they fail, the reactor and the spent fuel could quickly overheat, he said.

Experts say the reactors at Zaporizhzhia are designed to withstand natural disasters and even plane crashes, but the unpredictable fighting has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the cooling systems. Ukraine in 1986 was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the explosion at Chornobyl.

A room in a dilapidated school building, in the deserted town of Pripyat, some three kilometers from the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, on April 5, 2017. Ukraine in 1986 was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the explosion at Chornobyl . (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Residents flee the city where the nuclear plant is located

Ukrainian intelligence reported that residents of Enerhodar were fleeing the city out of fear.

“People en masse are reaching out to us for help. They are trying to leave to the dangerous territory, but there are no corridors,” Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, told Ukrainian TV.

Meanwhile, gunfire and explosions were heard in the afternoon in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine, with Russia’s state-run media reporting that the car of the Kremlin-installed “city commandant” had been blown up.

The RIA Novosti news agency said that the official, Artem Bardin, was in a serious condition and that a shootout followed the assassination attempt.

In the southern Kherson region, occupied by the Russians since early on in the war, Ukrainian forces continued their counteroffensive.

A pontoon bridge was blown up overnight and a command center was hit, as well as two checkpoints, Ukrainian authorities said.

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