International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is travelling to the Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP) to discuss “important issues and recent developments related to the still fragile nuclear safety and security situation at the site, including the reduced number of staff working at this major facility”.

It will be the fourth time Grossi crosses the frontline of the war to visit the ZNPP, whose six reactors have all been in shutdown for nearly 18 months. Although they produce no electricity, they hold large amounts of nuclear fuel that must be kept safe, including adequately cooled, and secure. Before visiting ZNPP, Grossi will hold high-level talks in Kyiv.

He is expected to address and seek to make progress on several current nuclear safety and security challenges at ZNPP, including potential risks related to the plant’s equipment maintenance activities. He will also raise the issue of staffing at the plant and request further information about a new announcement by the plant that workers employed by Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom will no longer be allowed to enter the site. The staff working at the ZNPP now comprise former Energoatom employees who have adopted Russian citizenship and signed employment contracts with the Russian operating entity, as well as staff who have been sent to ZNPP from the Russian Federation. ZNPP told the IAEA team at the site that there are enough certified personnel at the plant and all positions are fully filled.

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 2022, 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.

Grossi said it is of crucial importance that the plant has the qualified and skilled staff that it needs for nuclear safety and security. “The number of staff has already been reduced significantly since the war began almost two years ago,” Director General Grossi said. IAEA experts have continued to ask the ZNPP to provide more detailed information to fully understand and assess the situation in this regard, in particular about staff operating the main control rooms and those responsible for the maintenance of critical safety infrastructure and processes.

ZNPP told the IAEA experts earlier this week that nominal staffing levels for nuclear power plants operated by Rosatom are significantly lower than the corresponding staffing levels of Ukraine. The IAEA experts were informed that there currently are 4500 staff employed by the Russian operating entity at the ZNPP and 940 applications under consideration. Prior to the start of the armed conflict there were approximately 11500 staff working at the plant.

While at ZNPP, Grossi will also stress the importance of timely access for the IAEA to all parts of the plant relevant to nuclear safety and security. Access is needed for the IAEA teams based at the ZNPP to fully assess the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security at the ZNPP and also to monitor adherence to the five concrete principles for the protection of the plant.

Accompanying Grossi, a new group of IAEA experts will next week replace the current Agency team at the site. It will be the 16th team of the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhia (ISAMZ) since it was established on 1 September 2022. “The permanent presence of IAEA experts has been instrumental in helping to stabilise the nuclear safety and security situation at the … plant to some extent. But … the world cannot afford to be complacent,” Grossi said.

At the ZNPP, the current IAEA team of experts have conducted more walkdowns across the site, visiting the reactor hall of unit 1 and its safety system rooms, in some of which they observed the presence of boric acid deposits. The IAEA experts have previously seen deposits of boric acid in units 3 and 6. Borated water is used in the primary coolant to help maintain nuclear safety functions. ISAMZ also visited the two fresh fuel storage facilities, the dry used fuel storage facility and water sprinkler ponds. The team performed backpack radiation monitoring measurements on site, confirming that radiation levels were normal.

The 11 wells that were built near the sprinkler ponds following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam last June are providing cooling water for the six shutdown reactors and used nuclear fuel. The team has observed part of the commissioning work on the new diesel steam generators, and was informed by the plant that they had started operating. The IAEA has been informed that the steam generated by the new equipment will be used to process liquid waste. The ZNPP has not yet confirmed whether the steam generated by this new equipment will enable it to place all reactor units in cold shutdown.

Due to recent milder temperatures, the site has been able to reduce the number of mobile diesel boilers operating to four, out of the nine such units. These boilers provide heating to the plant as well as to the operators’ town of Energodar. The team was informed that maintenance had been completed on the back-up power transformer, following a failure earlier this month, and has resumed operation. ZNPP said it will soon inform the IAEA team about the cause of the failure.

ZNPP, meanwhile, has announced that from 1 February access to NPP facilities will be blocked for employees who have not signed a contract with ZNPP and that this will affect 120 people. Plant Director Yuriy Chernichuk said ZNPP is still ready to consider applications from employees who have not yet signed contracts, if they decide to continue working at the plant. "We are grateful to them for their professionalism and dedication,” he said. “And, despite the fact that they have been given enough time to make a decision on concluding a contract with the Russian operating company, we are ready to consider their applications if they make the appropriate decision.”

ZNPP said the decision to restrict access is the result of systematic efforts to bring the plant into compliance with the norms and regulations of the Russian nuclear industry aimed at ensuring the safety of the plant. It insisted that the plant is staffed in sufficient numbers for safe operation. The plant employs about 4,500 people and more than 700 employees have been promoted over the past year. In addition, 1,000 job applications are under consideration. Significant work has been done to provide employees with social guarantees. A branch trade union organisation was established at the ZNPP, and a collective agreement was signed.

Russia has also informed IAEA about the reason for setting up minefields near ZNPP. A note from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to international organisations in Vienna said the minefields are located between the outer and inner perimeters of the NPP. They do not pose a threat to plant personnel and IAEA experts. The statement was made in response to reports that IAEA experts had found new mines on the periphery of the NPP.

The note pointed out that this is a closed buffer zone with restricted access. "The presence of mines in it is due to the need to deter potential Ukrainian saboteurs," the diplomatic mission said. The note emphasised that the installation of mines to protect NPPs is an acceptable practice. It does not contradict the IAEA recommendations. Mining can be used even when the nuclear facility is not located in the zone of armed conflict.


Image: Zaporizhia nuclear power plant