Following his visit to the Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited Russia’s Kaliningrad for talks with Rosatom officials. Rosatom’s press service said that Grossi and Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev discussed safety measures at the plant.

Likhachev told Grossi about the measures taken by Russia to ensure the safe operation of ZNPP, including its water supply after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dniepr River, which has depleted water levels in the nearby reservoir, putting at risk cooling water for the six ZNPP reactors. Discussions also included the results of Grossi's trip to the plant earlier in June during which he was able to personally verify that the hydraulic structures of the ZNPP are operating normally, and that water reserves in the cooling pond are sufficient for the safe operation of the plant for the moment.

In addition to Likhachev, the Russian delegation included Alexander Trembitsky, Head of regulator Rostechnadzor; Vladimir Mashevsky, Head of the Main Directorate for the Protection of Rosgvardiya Facilities; and Mikhail Kondratenkov, Acting Deputy Director of the Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the Russian Foreign Ministry. IAEA experts Massimo Aparo and Lydie Evrard also participated.

"Likhachev and other speakers emphasised that we are now waiting for the IAEA secretariat to take concrete steps aimed at preventing the Ukrainian Armed Forces from attacking both the ZNPP and the adjacent territory and critical supporting infrastructure," the Rosatom press service said.

Grossi’s recent visit to ZNPP was his third since September 2022. The purpose was in part to assess the consequences of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. However, the trip had been planned before the dam was damaged and was intended to follow up on the establishment at the UN Security Council on 30 May of five basic IAEA principles for the protection of the plant at a time of heightened military risks, These included that there must be no attacks at or from the site, that it must not be used as a store for heavy weapons and that external power sources should be maintained. “From now on, we will be monitoring compliance with these principles, which are designed to prevent a nuclear accident during the armed conflict, which is showing clear signs of intensifying in the region where the plant is located. This requires a strengthened IAEA presence,” he said.

During the mission, Grossi carried out a new rotation of IAEA experts from the Support & Assistance Mission to Zaporizhia (ISAMZ). This was the ninth such team since ISAMZ was established in September 2022. The new strengthened team comprised four experts to replace the two who were ending their tour of duty.

Since Russia took control of ZNPP in March 2022 as part of its special military operation in Ukraine, the Russian national guard, Rosgvardiya, has been protecting the station. In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree formally transferring ZNPP to Russian jurisdiction under nuclear utility Rosenergoatom (part of Rosatom). A Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise. Zaporizhia NPP was established by Rosenergoatom to operate the plant. However, Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom still claims ownership of the plant.

Reports by Russian military analysts have continued to suggest that retaking control of ZNPP is one of the main objectives of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. There have been four unsuccessful attempts by Ukrainian forces to storm the plant since September 2022. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling that has repeatedly downed power lines vital to cooling the reactors, which are shut down but which need a constant supply of electricity to keep the nuclear fuel inside cool and prevent a possible meltdown. Russia and Ukraine have also accused each other of destroying the Nova Kakhovka dam.

Tension over ZNPP has been rising in recent days with accusations from Ukraine that Russia is planning a “terrorist” attack on the plant. President Zelensky in his Telegram channel said that he had discussed with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the situation around ZNPP and called for a principled reaction to this at the forthcoming NATO summit. Earlier, Zelensky said that he had received a report from the intelligence and security Service of Ukraine, which said Russia was preparing a terrorist act with the release of radiation at the plant.

The same accusation was made by Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Serhiy Kyslytsya, who called on the international community, during an address to the UN Security Council to take seriously the threat of an act of nuclear terror by Russia at the ZNPP. "It is a matter of alarm that according to intelligence information, Russia is considering a scenario of a terrorist attack at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant with radiation leakage,” he said. He urged the international community to introduce “strengthened restrictive measures against the Russian nuclear industry and military-industrial complex."

Then the UK-based New Statesman (NS) published an interview with Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the Main Directorate of Ukraine’s military intelligence organisation, who alleged that Russia had finished preparations for an attack on ZNPP. “According to Budanov… the cooling pond of the plant has been mined by Russian troops”, NS said. “Without cooling, the nuclear reactors could melt in a period of between ten hours and 14 days. He believes Russia would be able to raise the voltage in the power supply lines to the plant, bringing about a nuclear accident at the lower end of that time frame. As Budanov put it during the interview, ‘Technical means could be used to speed up the catastrophe’.” The publication added that “Ukrainian military intelligence has also been able to establish that Russian troops have moved vehicles charged with explosives to four of the six power units.” 

However, it is very clear from IAEA reports and from comments made by Grossi following his visit to ZNPP, where he toured the site and talked with staff, that there is no evidence of any weapons or explosives at the plant. Moreover, he confirmed that everything was being done by the plant staff to ensure there was sufficient water for cooling and that alternative water sources were being investigated in case something happened to the cooling pond.

In response to all these allegations from Ukraine, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, warned that, in face of its failing counter-offensive, Ukraine could stage a false-flag attack at the ZNPP in order to provoke NATO intervention. This same scenario was outlined by US Senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal who proposed a resolution to Congress under which the US would consider a meltdown or radiation incident at ZNPP as an act of war against NATO, arguing that Poland (a NATO member) would be affected by radioactive fallout. Russia’s Ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, warned that the “crazy” resolution was laying the groundwork for just such a false-flag event.

Russian Foreign Ministry representative, Maria Zakharova is quoted on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying Kyiv’s accusations that Moscow is threatening the safety of the ZNPP is a cover for its plans to create an emergency situation there. "This is yet another attempt to discredit Russia, attribute non-existent intentions to us, and at the same time cover up their criminal and, in fact, terrorist plans to create an emergency situation," the ministry statement noted.

Meanwhile, the Russian Security Service (FSB) has reported arresting a group of would-be smugglers of the radioactive isotope caesium-137. It alleged that, if the operation had been successful, the material would have been used “in a provocation stunt against Russia in the Ukraine conflict zone”. Five individuals were caught by FSB agents, with support from Interior Ministry officers, the statement reported. The group was acting “with coordination by a Ukrainian citizen” and was willing to pay $3.5m for one kilogram of the product, it said.

Multiple Russia media have pointed out that a Russian attack on the ZNPP makes no sense, given that it is staffed with Russian personnel, including Rosatom officials, and has a permanent IAEA presence at the site.

Image courtesy of Alexander Podgorchuk / Rosatom Country Newspaper