IAEA inspectors should be allowed to inspect the ZNPP.

Author: Simona Hobincu, Phd

From the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, world leaders and experts worried that Russia might use nuclear weapons if the war escalates. Although Russia has not used weapons of mass destruction yet, it has resorted to a series of actions that can have catastrophic consequences: at some point Russia has occupied the Chernobyl NPP and the exclusion zone around it, there have been also missile strikes and bombing raids against the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology, and most importantly in early march the Russian armed forces has occupied the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Moreover, as the experts in nuclear field in Ukraine said on the webinar “Safety and security of nuclear facilities in conflict zones: the War in Ukraine” (that took place on April 23), that anytime a missile could hit a NPP in Ukraine and none of the NPP in Ukraine can be completely secured by the Ukrainian forces. Missiles fired from Belarus and Russian territories have flown over the Ukrainian nuclear power plants since the beginning of the war.

The Zaporizhzhia NPP has been sized by the Russia in early March and its situation remains critical. Recent events have raised the level of concern regarding the situation at ZNPP.

The Ukrainian personnel are unable to carry out their activity properly, which can have severe consequences. The Russian military interfered with the Ukrainian staff in charge at the ZNPP. Some of them were arrested, others are continuing their work under constraints, others are suffering serious injuries as a result of the Russian military shelling of the ZNPP.

The Russian military forces have practically transformed the ZNPP in a military base from which they launch attacks on Ukraine. Around 500 Russian soldiers have been at the ZNPP site since it was occupied, together with heavy military equipment.

On August 6, Ukraine has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that a shelling incident took place near the dry spent fuel storage facility at ZNPP. In the dry storage there are 174 containers, each of which contains 24 stacks of spent nuclear fuel. Despite of the fact that the shelling caused some damage, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stated on August 9, that available radiation measurements continued to show normal levels at the site.However, it does not mean the situation at ZNPP cannot worsen taking into account the circumstances of war.The disaster that might result if rockets hit spent fuel being stored at the plant would be considerable. Spent fuel discharged from a power reactor contains residual 235U and converted plutonium, as well as fission-product and transuranic wastes. It is highly radioactive and generates a lot of heat.

Also, the Russian forces have mined parts of the facility. According to WINS (World Institute of Nuclear Security), there is also credible information that the Russian military placed military equipment, explosives and weapons in the engine room of power units 1 and 2 of the NPP.

ZNPP is a strategic objective and the occupation of the NPP by the Russian military forces can bring multiple benefits to the Russians.

It can be used as a military base by the Russian Military forces where they can hide and launch attacks on Ukraine without fearing massive retaliations from the Ukrainian forces.

The Russian military could cut off electricity and leave significant areas of Ukraine without electricity and they also could connect it to the Crimean electrical substation Dzhankoy.

Most importantly, ZNPP can also be used as weapon of war and generate a catastrophic nuclear event with local or regional consequences (ex. Chernobyl disaster).). Bucha massacre and the killing of so many civilians in Ukraine since the beginning of the war have already proved Putin`s propensity for massive human killing and disaster. If it wasn’t the fear of retaliation, it is very likely that Putin would have used a weapon of mass destruction in Ukraine by now. An “accident” (such as detonation of ammunition or one generated by the remote control of the NPP) at ZNPP would make harder any investigation to establish who is accountable due to high level of radiations and the retaliation/response from Ukraine or international community to the event.More than sure the Russians would blame Ukraine for the event and in the worst case Russia would only receive more sanctions from the international community.

Considering the circumstances, the list of catastrophic scenarios could go on beyond our imagination. The worst thing is that it would be impossible for Ukraine to manage by itself a major incident at ZNPP and its consequences could expand beyond the Ukrainian borders. Secondly, in the case of nuclear weapons there is the option of retaliation. How international community would react/respond in front of a major nuclear event generated by Russia at ZNPP? Who would pay the costs? Who would be held accountable?

The IAEA’s presence at the Zaporizhzya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine would allow the organization to carry out important technical activities in nuclear safety, security and safeguards and at the same time provide a stabilizing influence.“I ask that both sides of this armed conflict cooperate with the IAEA and allow for a mission to the Zaporizhzya Nuclear Power Plant as soon as possible.Time is of the essence” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the UN Security Council on August 11. Also, the international community has escalated calls for Russia to leave the facility.

To prevent any catastrophic event that may occur, the IAEA inspectors should be allowed to inspect the ZNPP . The IAEA has not been able to visit the Russian-occupied facility in Ukraine’s south since before the conflict began more than five months ago.

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