International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has repeated his demand that IAEA inspectors must go to Zaporizhzhia NPP in Ukraine as soon as possible to carry out essential nuclear material verification activities which cannot be done remotely.

He noted that the IAEA and the Ukrainian operator of the Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP) had worked together to restore the remote transmission of vital safeguards data from the facility to IAEA headquarters after a technical interruption of almost two weeks, and welcomed the development as an important and positive step for the implementation of IAEA safeguards at Ukraine's largest NPP.

The transfer of safeguards data from IAEA systems installed at the ZNPP was cut on 30 May and re-established on 12 June. The images recorded by IAEA surveillance cameras during this time period are now being downloaded for review by Agency inspectors to confirm that continuity of knowledge has not been lost, he said.

Russian forces took control of the ZNPP more than three months ago, but its Ukrainian staff are continuing to operate the plant. “Remote transmission of safeguards data is an important element of IAEA safeguards in Ukraine and elsewhere,” Grossi said. “However, it is not a substitute for the physical presence of IAEA inspectors at NPPs to verify nuclear material at regular intervals.”

The interval of physical inventory verifications at NPPs cannot exceed a specified duration. This is particularly critical at two of the units at ZNPP. In addition, these units have been refuelled in recent months and a physical verification of the nuclear material therein is a safeguards pre-requisite before re-starting them.

“If I am not able to dispatch inspectors to perform the required verification at ZNPP, implementation of safeguards in Ukraine will be compromised,” Grossi added. He said he was continuing his efforts to agree and organise an IAEA-led International Mission to the ZNPP as soon as possible to carry out safety and security work at the plant in southern Ukraine. IAEA inspectors would at the same time conduct their on-site verification activities there.

This followed a week of growing tension between the IAEA and the operator of ZNPP, Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom, which had repeatedly criticised the Agency and Grossi for limiting its activities to non-political technical support rather than demanding an immediate end to Russian control of the plant.

In a very emotional address to the opening session of the IAEA Board of Governors (BOG) on 6 June he said it was “vital for Ukraine be able to continue to fulfil its safeguards obligations unimpeded” and noted the Agencies practical assistance delivered during visits to the Chernobyl NPP and Exclusion Zone. “We were able to restore the transmission of safeguards data from our equipment installed on the site to the Agency Headquarters that had been interrupted during the Russian occupation of the site,” he said.

He added: “I am working actively to agree, organize and head an IAEA-led International Mission to Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the biggest in Europe, to carry out essential nuclear safety, security and safeguards work at the site.”

He said he had “taken note” of the appeal by the Ukrainian government calling on “the IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to redouble their efforts to find ways of liberating the ZNPP from Russian invaders as soon as possible, return it under the full control of Ukraine, restore station`s security and elaborate effective modalities for dispatching to the ZNPP international experts’ mission under the auspices of the IAEA/UN.”

He continued: “We are developing the modalities to dispatch such a mission; other considerations should not prevent this essential international mission from taking place. Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia NPP site remains under the control of the Russian forces there. I have repeatedly expressed my grave concern at the extremely stressful and challenging working conditions under which Ukrainian management and staff are operating the plant. One clear line of Ukrainian operational control and responsibility is vital, not only for the safety and security of Zaporizhzhia NPP, but also so that IAEA inspectors are able to continue to fulfil their regular, indispensable verification activities.”

He expressed concern about “a clear and present risk to the safety, security and safeguards” at the plant. He cited interruptions in the supply chain of spare parts to Zaporizhzhia NPP, adding that Ukraine’s regulator said they had “lost control over” the facility’s nuclear material that is subject to the Safeguards Agreement between Ukraine and the IAEA. In addition, there has been a loss of safeguards data communication from Zaporizhzhia NPP to the IAEA.

“Let me reiterate the following: Everyone here shares the same goal: that Ukraine’s nuclear facilities are safe, secure and well safeguarded. The urgent need for us to be there is clear to all. Logistics and other such considerations must not prevent it. We must find a solution to the hurdles preventing progress at Zaporizhzhia NPP. I will not stop pursuing this and I count on your active support.”

His frustration was very evident and, although he did not elaborate on the source of the obstacles to his planned mission, earlier statements by Energoatom and by the Ukrainian regulator SNRIU had indicated a significant level of hostility towards the IAEA. Statements from Energoatom in the following days confirmed this, and also indicated that Russia was, in fact, trying to facilitate the visit.

On 9 June, Energoatom said on its Telegram channel that “Russian occupiers are gearing up for IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi’s visit to Zaporizhzhia NPP” and that Russia’s military and Rosatom “are holding special meetings and even communicating with the IAEA to organise the arrival of the agency's mission”.

Energoatom said such a visit would result in “only one thing – to legitimise the occupation of the power plant”.   It would enable   the IAEA “to arrive, record a safe radiation background and control over nuclear materials, approve the state of nuclear and radiation safety, and generally emphasise that everything is fine at the NPP now, stating that, all other issues are political, and the IAEA is not involved in politics”.

Energoatom  said it was unclear how the IAEA mission could get to the power plant. “Nobody from Ukraine invited them there. First of all – for security reasons. Are they going to come to ZNPP through Russia and then Crimea or other temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories under the protection of the Russian military without the agreement of Ukraine?”

The only way to expedite a visit to ZNPP by IAEA experts, Energoatom said, is for the IAEA “to take a stand on the withdrawal of russian troops, tanks, and other heavy equipment as well as the removal of weapons and ammunition from the ZNPP site and a policy of pressure on Russia to liberate the Ukrainian nuclear power plant from invaders and transfer control of the ZNPP to Ukraine.” 

The previous day, responding to Grossi’s address to the BOG, Energoatom on its Telegram channel accused him of “lying”. Energoatom insisted that “the Ukrainian side did not invite Grossi to visit ZNPP and had previously denied him such a visit, emphasising that a visit to the power plant will be possible only when our country regains control over it.”

Referring to the loss of online data from ZNPP to IAEA, Energoatom said: “We consider this message from the head of the IAEA as another attempt to get to ZNPP by any means to legitimise the stay of the occupiers there and in fact, to approve all their actions.” It said the loss of connection was caused by Russia cutting off the Ukrainian operator from Vodafone in Enerhodar with which the IAEA has a contract for data transfer.

“Currently, all data collection points and servers under the control of the Agency are closed and sealed. The information is stored on the server and will be transferred when Vodafone is turned on.” Energoatom said it was “very likely” that Russia “with the prior consent of the IAEA, made sure that the Agency lost control without access to this information, and therefore the IAEA Director General would have a reason to come to the power plant”.

Then on 10 June, in another Telegram post, Energoatom said: “Thanks to the joint efforts of Energoatom and Vodafone …  communication between the ZNPP servers for nuclear material control and the IAEA was restored. The connection was lost on 30 May 30 when the Russian occupiers turned off Vodafone in Energodar.”

It continued: “However, all data for this period were stored on secure ZNPP servers and transferred to the IAEA immediately after the connection was restored….It was the lack of these data at the IAEA and the inability to obtain them in the usual way – through a mobile operator – that Grossi, Director General of the IAEA told the IAEA Board of Governors was the main reason to visit ZNPP in person. This problem has been solved by joint efforts of Energoatom and Vodafone.”

However, Grossi clearly remains determined to visit the plant. He still maintains that the Ukrainian government at the highest levels has requested that the IAEA send a mission to Zaporizhzhia: “This mission is not a matter of wanting or wishing, it is an obligation on the side of Ukraine and on the side of the IAEA. The IAEA will go to Zaporizhzhia NPP under the legally binding safeguards agreement that Ukraine has with the IAEA.”