The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has completed a joint safeguards and nuclear security expert mission to a nuclear research facility in Ukraine’s north-eastern city of Kharkiv and found it had been heavily damaged by shelling during the current military conflict, but without any indication of radiological release or diversion of declared nuclear material, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi reported.

The mission to the Kharkiv Institute of Physics & Technology (KIPT) – the IAEA’s first to this research site since the conflict began more than eight months ago – also visited the Radon radioactive waste management facility in the same city, which so far remains intact.

“Our three nuclear security and safeguards experts have been able to successfully complete this very important mission to Kharkiv, which has suffered greatly during the tragic war in Ukraine. We had previously received information from Ukraine about extensive damage to the city’s nuclear research facility, but this was the first time we could see the facility for ourselves… Although radiation levels were normal, the extent of damage to this nuclear research facility is dramatic and shocking, even worse than expected. The sheer scale and intensity of the sustained targeting of KIPT violate all the seven indispensable nuclear safety and security pillars I outlined at the beginning of the conflict” Grossi said.

The aim of the mission was to assess the extent of the damage to the KIPT site as a result of heavy shelling hitting the facility, including on 6 March and again on 25 June, and to see whether these attacks had impacted its physical protection system. This also met the Agency’s commitment to perform such a mission once the security situation allowed travel to the site. 

KIPT’s subcritical Neutron Source installation, used for research and development as well as radioisotope production for medical and industrial applications, was transferred to a deep sub-critical state at the start of the conflict on 24 February, and its radioactive inventory is low. The IAEA has previously reported that there was no increase in radiation at the site despite damage to its infrastructure, cooling system and diesel generator building.

During the mission, the IAEA expert team observed even greater damage to the site than it had previously reported, with nearly all buildings on the site affected, many of them probably beyond repair.

KIPT’s Deputy Director General told the IAEA team that the site had endured around one hundred instances of missile attacks and shelling during the first three weeks of the conflict alone, and it had been without power and water for more than a month.

Many buildings and facilities at the site still have no heat or power, and most windows are broken. Staff are working to cover windows and restore heat and power before winter. Throughout the period of heavy attacks earlier in the conflict, KIPT’s security staff remained on duty and managed to maintain the site’s physical protection system, implementing contingency measures to counter and compensate for damage to individual security systems, structures, and components.

The Radon facility, in contrast, has so far not been damaged during the conflict, but the IAEA team heard the sound of repeated shelling in the distance when it visited the site.

Regarding safeguards, the IAEA team was able to verify the inventory of nuclear material at KIPT’s fuel fabrication R&D facility – which holds most of the site’s nuclear material – noting that there had been no changes since last year. At KIPT’s Neutron Source Research Reactor – which was heavily damaged on the outside of the building housing the reactor but with no damage inside – the IAEA inspectors performed design information verification and noted no changes to the design of the facility, though they were not able to access the nuclear material for verification due to lack of power. The IAEA will conduct additional verification activities of this nuclear material once the facility’s power has been restored, Grossi said.

In addition, the team conducted a complementary access (CA) while at KIPT, visiting all onsite hot cells and finding no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities. At the same time, the experts checked the entire site area with a radiation monitor and did not identify any sources of radiation, with measurements at or around background levels.