In an address to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) listed five basic principles needed to prevent a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP) as military activity increases in the run up to an expected Ukrainian offensive in the region.

Since Russia took control of ZNPP in March 2022 as part of its special military operation in Ukraine, the Russian national guard has been protecting the station and 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 suggest that retaking control of ZNPP is one of the objectives of the coming Ukrainian offensive. 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.

Grossi said the IAEA has been closely monitoring the situation since the start of the war. Since 1 September 2022 an IAEA Support & Assistance Mission has been stationed at the plant, which is currently on its eighth rotation. Grossi noted that 23 IAEA staff had participated in these missions. Grossi told the UNSC that the nuclear safety and security situation at ZNPP “continues to be extremely fragile and dangerous”, adding that “military activities continue in the region and may well increase very considerably in the near future”. He warned: “We are rolling a dice and if this continues then one day our luck will run out”.

He recalled that a year ago he had elaborated seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security during an armed conflict. These are:

  • The physical integrity of facilities – whether it is the reactors, fuel ponds or radioactive waste stores – must be maintained.
  • All safety and security systems and equipment must be fully functional at all times.
  • The operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure.
  • There must be a secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites.
  • There must be uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the sites.
  • There must be effective on- and off-site radiation monitoring systems, and emergency preparedness and response measures.
  • There must be reliable communication with the regulator and others.

A nuclear or radiological accident during the ongoing conflict could have disastrous consequences for the people of Ukraine, for the people of Russia, as well as for neighbouring States, and beyond, he noted. However, “the time has come to be more specific as to what is required” to prevent a dangerous release of radioactive material. Based on the seven pillars and in intensive consultation with Ukraine and Russia, Grossi said he had identified five concrete principles to help ensure nuclear safety and security at the plant. “I see these commitments as essential to avoid the danger of a catastrophic incident,” he noted:

  • There should be no attack of any kind from or against the plant, in particular targeting the reactors, spent fuel storage, other critical infrastructure, or personnel;
  • ZNPP should not be used as storage or a base for heavy weapons (i.e. multiple rocket launchers, artillery systems and munitions, and tanks) or military personnel that could be used for an attack from the plant;
  • Off-site power to the plant should not be put at risk. To that effect, all efforts should be made to ensure that off-site power remains available and secure at all times;
  • All structures, systems and components essential to the safe and secure operation of ZNPP should be protected from attacks or acts of sabotage;
  • No action should be taken that undermines these principles.

The IAEA experts onsite, namely the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ), will report to the IAEA Director General on the observance of these principles and the Director General will report publicly on any violations of these principles. “I respectfully and solemnly ask both sides to observe these five principles. I request distinguished Members of the Security Council to unambiguously support them. Let me say something very clearly: These principles are to no one’s detriment and to everyone’s benefit.” He added that the IAEA intends to start monitoring these principles immediately through its on-site mission.

Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said ensuring the safety and security of nuclear facilities “has always been and remain and unconscionable priority for our country”. He added: “Russia has, from the very beginning and with the support of the Agency’s leadership made every effort to prevent threats to the safety of the Zaporizhia NPP”. He noted that, after his first visit to ZNPP in September 2022 Grossi had announced an initiative to create a zone for the protection and safety of the plant. “That plan contained a number of important elements, the implementation of which could have contributed to putting an end to attacks on the NPP as well as preventing an emergency situation and man-made disaster with unpredictable consequences. The IAEA director general and secretariat carried out a vast amount of work to this end. However, due to the unwillingness of Kiev to negotiate and lack of desire to refrain from shelling the plant the initiative was ultimately not realised.”

Nebenzia said he shared Grossi’s concerns about plant safety adding that Ukrainian shelling of the facility was “absolutely unacceptable”. He added that Grossi’s proposals to ensure safety at the plant “are in line with the measures we have already been implementing for a long time in accordance with decisions taken at the national level”. He insisted that “no attacks have been carried out from the territory of the ZNPP” and “the plant has never seen any heavy weapons or ammunition on its territory, not is there any military personnel at the NPP that could be used to carry out an attack from the plant’s territory.” Furthermore, “We have carried out specific steps protect specific installations, systems and components at the plant from any attack or sabotage.” Based on Grossi’s seven indispensable pillars of safety Russia will continue to ensure the safety of the plant, he noted. However, he warned that “Russia will take the most severe measures to respond to any attack by Ukraine against the NPP, its critical infrastructure including power lines and the city of Energodar.” He concluded: “We trust that… the IAEA secretariat will also demonstrate the Agency’s impartiality and lack of bias and openly condemn Ukraine’s actions, which have repeatedly brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.”

Ukraine's ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, in his address, accused Russia of intimidating personnel at the plant, shelling the NPP and mining its perimeter. He said “shelling seriously undermines the safety of the NPP and could lead to a nuclear incident or accident” in clear violation of the first of Grossi’s seven pillars of safety and security. He said Russia “continues to use the plant for military purposes” and had deployed 500 military personnel there. He added that 50 units of heavy weapons and explosives were located in the turbine buildings of units 1,2 and 4 at the NPP. He said he supported the IAEA’s commitment to restore safety and security at the plant in line with the seven indispensable pillars applicable to all nuclear facilities worldwide. In the case of ZNPP, however, “due to the uniqueness of the situation…these principles must be complemented with a demand for full demilitarisation and de-occupation of the station”. He described Ukraine’s position on the fundamental principle of ensuring nuclear safety at ZNPP as being “clear and consistent. “To ultimately remove the threat from the illegal Russian presence at the plant, the troops and weaponry must be withdrawn. The station must be de-occupied and returned to the legitimate and full control of Ukraine,” in line with a resolution passed by the IAEA Board of Governors.

He added that “in this regard”, Grossi’s five principles to ensure safety at the plant “should also include the following elements: first, withdrawal of troops and all other Russian personnel illegally present at the station; second guarantees of uninterrupted power supplies to ZNPP from territory under the control of the government of Ukraine; third humanitarian corridors to ensure the rotation of management and repair personnel in order to maintain the plant in a safe condition.”

All the other Security Council members also commented on the IAEA’s proposals. In his concluding remarks, Grossi noted that following those presentations “there may be differences but there is consensus around the idea that there must never be a nuclear accident and for this the work of the IAEA is indispensable”. He said “Today… constitutes a step in the right direction in ensuring the safety and security of ZNPP. He added that he was encouraged by the support expressed for the seven indispensable pillars of safety and the five basic principles he had proposed. “We commit ourselves to continue working to consolidate them and to be more effective in protecting this facility. We also express our readiness to continue keeping you abreast and informed of the situation including implementation of observance of the five principles I have deliberated. We will continue and reinforce our presence to avoid what must be avoided at all costs.”

The clear purpose of Grossi’s address to the Security Council was to signal a new approach to the situation around ZNPP including providing objective, first-hand information about developments, including military matters. This is something the Agency had been very careful to avoid previously, drawing repeated criticism, especially from Russia, for failing to identify the source of shelling. In a press conference after the meeting Grossi made this clear. He stressed that the Agency would be strengthening its permanent presence at ZNPP and would monitor the situation based on the five basic principles. In reply to questions he said there would be continuity of what the Agency had been doing but with a difference “looking in more detail into possible military activity – this until now was not part of our mission”.

He confirmed that the military situation was “increasingly fragile”, noting that the basic principles were a “bare minimum – a better tool to deal with a very bad situation”. With the principles in place “we will be able to interact with management there and inform about mines inside or outside the plant”. He noted that increased activity and talk about further expected military activity “has led to reinforcement of security around the plant”. He confirmed that “for the moment we don’t see any heavy military equipment there and we will continue to report about it.”

He noted problems with the previous goal of establishing a protective zone around the plant. “With increased military activity, any territorial restrictions are difficult to obtain – this is precisely why we have adjusted what we were trying to achieve.” The issue would continue to be considered “but it is important to consolidate what we have achieved today – history proves that in times of war principles will not be respected”. However, he affirmed: “The IAEA has one single power – the power of the pen. We will report immediately and the international community will know from an authoritative source what is happening. We believe this is a deterrent factor in case anyone has the idea to attack the NPP. It’s not enough. We need peace and complete stabilisation of the situation. Establishing the basic principles “is not a step towards the abyss but towards a safer place.”

Image: IAEA Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, at a meeting with the UN Security Council in New York on 30th May (courtesy of IAEA)