Remote transmission of safeguards data from the Chernobyl NPP has been fully re-established, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said on 11 May. This resulted from the deployment of new transmission channels based on satellite technologies and of other technical work conducted by the Agency since the visit of safeguards inspectors and technicians to the plant in April. This is the first time that remote data from all sites where such systems are in place in Ukraine, including all NPPs and associated spent fuel storage facilities, has been transferred in full to the IAEA Headquarters since the two months interruption at the Chernobyl NPP.

“This is a very important step for the IAEA to continue to implement safeguards in Ukraine,” Grossi said. “However, implementing safeguards also includes in-field verification activities. The situation at Zaporozhye NPP continues to be challenging owing to the presence of Russian forces and Rosatom personnel at the site. Although the IAEA continues to adjust its safeguards activities, the situation is unsustainable. I have therefore proposed to lead a visit to Zaporozhye NPP, including safeguards inspectors and nuclear safety and security experts, after the necessary consultations and at the earliest possible opportunity,” he added.

Grossi had similar messages for the European Parliament the previous day when he addressed by video-link a joint session of the Security & Defence and Foreign Affairs sub-committees. In a 15-minute address followed by questions, he discussed both the situation in Ukraine and in Iran.

The situation in Ukraine

He said the situation in Ukraine was far from being solved and it was necessary to prevent the situation becoming more dangerous. He added that he had visited Ukraine twice – to South Ukraine NPP and to Chernobyl – for two reasons: to extend assistance; and to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the overall and radiation situation in order to issue neutral, impartial reports. “At a time of fake news it is important to establish the facts,” he said. He affirmed that the situation in Chernobyl was “stabilised”. In reply to a question about why Russia had taken over the Chernobyl site he said he had asked Russian officials that question and was told they did it to prevent acts of sabotage at the facility. Grossi gave assurances that the IAEA was in permanent contact with the plant. He said the Russian troops had left no permanent effects in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and that radiation monitoring there revealed only slightly elevated levels. He dismissed press reports that Russian troops had suffered serious radiation sickness.

On Zaporozhye, he said the situation was “fragile” and “extremely complex” although the integrity of the facilities had not been damaged. He stressed the importance of the IAEA visiting the site and said he was in talks with both Ukraine and Russia to try to arrange this. Noting that some Ukrainian officials had mentioned the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, he said the IAEA had denied this on the grounds that its inspections had confirmed no diversion of nuclear material at the site. However, with some 30,000kg of enriched uranium stored at the site and a similar amount of plutonium, continued regular inspections were essential. He repeated that he had been telling both Ukraine and Russia that IAEA must go there to establish that the nuclear materials in order and to assess the staffing situation.

Grossi noted that the Ukrainian operators at the plant were working under the military authority of an occupying power in addition to which Russia had sent nuclear experts there. As a result, the potential for disagreement and confusion increases the possibility of accident. The presence of senior Russian experts "whose function is not entirely clear … goes against every possible safety principle that we have … there is potential for disagreement, there is potential for friction, potential for contradictory instructions … you don’t want to have that in such a complex, delicate, sophisticated facility as a nuclear power plant".

In reply to a question he noted that the problem he faced was that both Ukraine and Russia had agreed to an IAEA visit but only under the flags of their respective countries. He described it as a “schizophrenic situation”. He said while the NPP was in Ukraine and was Ukrainian, “at the same time I deal with realities, and the reality is that this plant is under Russian military control … the reality is that I am confronted with a situation where the format, the political modalities of the visit, are even more important for them than the technical mission that I need to perform”. He added: “We are not at a dead end. I am talking to both to try to look for a way that our inspectors and myself could visit.”

On Iran and other matters

Grossi told the joint sub-committees that Iran “should be at the top of our consideration”, despite Ukraine. He noted that talks aimed at the US rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were at an “impasse” and “frozen”. Under the JCPOA between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. After former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018. Grossi said the window of opportunity to resolve the issue “could be closed at any time”.

Noting that it was the IAEA’s responsibility to ensure whatever might be agreed under the JCPOA, he said there were some outstanding issues related to the fact the IAEA had found traces of enriched uranium at several sited in Iran where such activity had not been declared. IAEA had asked Iran for an explanation. He said in his opinion US officials do want an agreement with Iran but “these outstanding issues are serious”.

In answer to another question from a committee member about Russia’s possible expulsion from the IAEA, Grossi said that any decision on expelling a member of the IAEA was up to its membership, not the director general, and he said there had been "no move in that direction".

At the end of the session, Nathalie Loiseau, who was chairing the meeting noted: “Now we have heard all the facts, I would ask you not to spread fake news.”

Ukraine separately informed the IAEA on 11 May that there had been no significant developments related to nuclear safety and security in the past 24 hours. Regarding the 15 operational reactors at four NPPs, Ukraine said seven are currently connected to the grid, including two at the Russian-controlled Zaporozhye NPP, two at the Rovno NPP, two at the South Ukraine NPP, and one at the Khmelnitsky NPP. The eight other reactors are shut down for regular maintenance or held in reserve. Safety systems remain operational at the four NPPs, and they also continue to have off-site power available.