The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it will provide vital assistance to Ukraine in coping with the devastating consequences of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. The breach of the dam caused a rapid drop in the water levels of the Kakhovka reservoir further complicating an already precarious nuclear safety and security situation at the Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP). IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said this added to the importance of his already planned mission to the plant.

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. IAEA has had experts permanent stationed at the plant – the Support & Assistance Mission to Zaporizhia (ISAMZ).

Reports by Russian military analysts suggest that retaking control of ZNPP is one of the objectives of the coming Ukrainian counter-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.

Russia and Ukraine have also accused each other of destroying the dam. Addressing the UN Security Council, Russia’s representative Vassily Nebenzia said Kyiv had “committed an unthinkable crime” noting that in 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces leadership had declared its readiness to blow up the dam to gain a military advantage. Ukraine’s representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya said Russia “blew up the dam of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, which is located near the town of Nova Kakhovka in the temporarily occupied territory of the Kherson region”. He noted that Russia had controlled the dam and power plant for more than a year.

Grossi, responding to a request for international assistance from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said he would present details of the Agency’s new assistance package at their forthcoming meeting in Kyiv after which he will also travel to the ZNPP.

Since the beginning of the military conflict more than 15 months ago, the IAEA has been supporting Ukraine in efforts to prevent a nuclear accident. In addition, the IAEA will now use its expertise and resources in the application of nuclear science to assist Ukraine in other areas in the affected region. “Through the use of nuclear techniques, we will determine the effects on potable water, human health, and soil and water management and assess the integrity of critical infrastructure. Ukraine can count on our assistance now and in dealing with the longer-term consequences of this disaster,” Grossi said.

The IAEA experts present at the ZNPP said the height of the reservoir is continuing to drop at a rate of around five centimetres per hour and had reached 11.62 metres down from nearly 17 metres before the dam was damaged almost four days before. Following a review, ZNPP reported to the IAEA team that it has estimated it can pump water from the reservoir to the plant, for cooling of its six reactors and used fuel, until the level falls to 11 metres or possibly lower.

It remains unclear at what height the Kakhovka reservoir will stabilise and whether it will do so before it reaches a level where the pumps can no longer be operated, Grossi said. However, the main sources of alternative water supplies – the large cooling pond next to ZNPP and the discharge channel of the nearby Zaporizhia Thermal Power Plant (ZTPP) – are both full. Grossi said the IAEA team has been informed that the ZTPP discharge channel alone has sufficient water to provide the required cooling to the ZNPP for several weeks. In addition, the cooling pond can supply water to the ZNPP for months.

The ZNPP cooling pond and the ZTPP discharge channel are both integral to continuing to supply cooling water and the Director General reiterated that maintaining their integrity is vital for the safety of the plant. In view of this, the ZNPP is carefully monitoring the condition of the dyke surrounding the large cooling pond because of the increased pressure caused by the massive loss of water on its other side.

“Even if there is no short-term threat, the dam disaster is causing major new difficulties for the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant at a time when the nuclear safety and security situation is already extremely fragile and potentially dangerous during the military conflict,” Grossi said. “Increased military activities in the area are adding to our deep concerns about the safety and security of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.” Underlining such risks, the IAEA experts continue to hear military activity, including some explosions this morning.

Five of the ZNPP’s reactor units are in cold shutdown and one is in hot shutdown, providing steam to support processes that also contribute to safety on site. ZNPP said the available water supply gives it time to determine how long it will continue to operate unit 5 in hot shutdown. The plant is considering the possibility of installing an independent steam boiler that would meet the need for steam supply to the site in case all six reactor units are in cold shutdown.

Separately, the Russian Federation, which currently controls the plant, in a letter to Director General Grossi said there had been “incoming strikes with the use of kamikaze drones” on 8 June and subsequently against the electric switchyard of the ZTPP, which in the past has been used for providing back-up electricity to the ZNPP until the last such 330 kilovolt (kV) power line was damaged more than three months ago. Grossi said the IAEA expects to independently assess this information, which requires accessing the ZTPP switchyard.

Russian media, citing security officials, said the drones were brought down using electronic methods. One of the drones exploded upon crashing, while two were recovered mostly intact. They were found to be carrying PG-7L explosive warheads. Following examination by explosives experts, it was decided to destroy them.

Under the five basic principles for protecting the ZNPP unveiled by Grossi at the United Nations Security Council on 30 May, there should be no attack from or against the plant. In addition, the plant should not be used as storage or a base for heavy weapons and off-site power to the plant should not be put at risk. “During my mission next week, I will reinforce our team of experts at the site in view of our increased activities there. In order for them to monitor compliance with the five principles, I expect them to have the required access,” Grossi said.

On 11 June, ZNPP’s Telegram channel reported that fragments of an American M777 howitzer shell had been found at the site "during the cleaning of the splash pools, aimed at eliminating the consequences of last year's shelling of the station”.

There are also growing concerns that the lowering of the water levels in the Dniepr river and reservoir following the dam collapse make the possibility of a direct assault on ZNPP by Ukrainian troops more likely. Storming of the plant has been attempted four times before according to Russia’s Defence Ministry on 1, 2-3 and 8-9 September and 19 October 2022. The October attack was described in detail by The Times. All the attacks were repulsed by Russian forces.

Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Main Council of the [Russian] regional administration of Zaporozhye, told Tass that the reduced water level will make an assault easier once the land dries out. Similar comments were made by military commander Yuri Kotenok said on his Telegram channel. He said that analyses indicate preparation of a provocation ZNPP with plans to land troops in the area of Energodar. "The task is to lower the water level, bringing together the banks " he said. Military expert Vladislav Shurygin said he believed “Kiev's priority remains the seizure of the nuclear power plant on the Dniepr”.

Meanwhile, a legal commission has been established by Russia to deal with the consequences of the dam’s destruction. Prime Minister Mykhailo Mishustin on instructions from President Vladimir Putin has set up a government commission to deal with large-scale flooding. The commission includes the head of the Russian Emergencies Ministry, Alexander Kurenkov; the head of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Alexander Kozlov; the first Deputy Finance Minister, Leonid Gornin; the first Deputy Interior Minister, Alexander Gorovoy, and the acting governor of the Kherson region.

Sergey Kiriyenko, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Russia visited ZNPP on 8 June and inspected hydraulic structures. Kirienko was formerly head of Rosatom.

"Sergey Kiriyenko held a meeting with the plant's specialists and inspected the hydrotechnical structures of the nuclear power plant. He made sure that they were operating normally, " the press service of ZNPP said in its Telegram channel.

The recent breach of Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine caused a rapid drop in water levels at Kakhovka reservoir, further complicating an already precarious nuclear safety and security situation at the Zaporizhia NPP (pictured)