International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said he is ready to travel to Chernobyl to secure the commitment to the safety and security of all Ukraine’s nuclear power plants from the parties of the conflict in the country. 

He reiterated this pledge in a statement to the Board of Governors on 7 March, expressing his deep concern about recent events. 

Last week saw a military projectile hit a building at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, causing a fire, but no release of radiation. Russian forces have also taken control of all facilities located within the Exclusion Zone and bombing has been reported in the area of the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, a nuclear research facility. 

“Russian forces now control the management of the [Zaporozhye] plant and the approval of technical decisions made by the Ukrainian operators. This is not a safe way to run a nuclear power plant. Nor is it safe or sustainable for internal and external communications to have been disrupted and cut off, as it has been reported to us by the Ukrainian operator and regulator. I am deeply concerned about this turn of events,” Grossi said in his statement today.

“We must avert a nuclear accident in Ukraine. Let us not hide behind “all” or “nothing-at-all” solutions,” he said, adding he was ready to travel to wherever needed to secure the agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron he is open to a meeting on the safety of Ukrainian nuclear power plants. In response to Grossi’s suggestion for a trilateral (IAEA, Ukraine and Russia) meeting in the Chernobyl zone, he noted that “could be useful” but suggested it would be better to hold the meeting “via videoconference or in a third country,” RT reported 6 March. 

Update on Zaporozhye nuclear plant in Ukraine

In the latest update on the situation yesterday, 6 March, Grossi said Ukraine informed the IAEA that, although regular staff continued to operate the Zaporozhye NPP, “the plant management is now under orders from the commander of the Russian forces that took control of the site last week”. Ukraine also said any action of plant management – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units – now requires prior approval by the Russian commander.

Grossi expressed concern that this contravenes one of the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security: that operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure.

He said Ukraine had also reported that the Russian forces at the site had switched off some mobile networks and the internet so that reliable information from the site could not be obtained through the normal channels of communication. 

Ukraine’s nuclear regulator told the IAEA that it had started having major problems in communicating with staff operating the Zaporozhye plant – phone lines, as well as e-mails and fax, were not functioning anymore. Mobile phone communication was still possible, but with poor quality. This contravenes another of the pillars: “There must be reliable communications with the regulator and others.”

“I’m extremely concerned about these developments… In order to be able to operate the plant safely and securely, management and staff must be allowed to carry out their vital duties in stable conditions without undue external interference or pressure,” Grossi said. “The deteriorating situation regarding vital communications between the regulator and the Zaporozhye NPP is also a source of deep concern, especially during an armed conflict that may jeopardize the country’s nuclear facilities at any time. Reliable communications between the regulator and the operator are a critical part of overall nuclear safety and security.” 

However, despite the communication issues, the regulator was able to provide updated information about the operational status of the Zaporozhye plant and to confirm that radiation levels there remained normal. Of the six reactors, unit 1 is in planned maintenance until mid-2022, unit 2 is operating at full capacity, unit 3 is in a cold shutdown state, unit 4 is operating at near full capacity, unit 5 is cooling down for a cold reserve state, and unit 6 is in cold shutdown.

Grossi noted one positive development, that operational teams at the plant were now rotating in three shifts. But said there were problems with availability and supply of food, which was having a negative impact on staff morale, according to the regulator.

Separately Ukraine’s nuclear regulator (SNRIU) reported that at 16:06 on 6 March the 750kV high-voltage line was damaged in Vasylivka, Zaporizhia region, during fierce fighting.

Regulator reports difficulties communicating with nuclear facilities

The regulator also reported that it was facing problems communicating with personnel at the Chernobyl NPP, which was only possible with e-mails.  At the Chernobyl NPP, the staff of more than 200 technical personnel and guards have still not been able to rotate since 23 February, it said.

Grossi has repeatedly stressed the importance of operating staff being able to rest to carry out their jobs safely and securely. “I call on those in effective control of the Chernobyl NPP to immediately allow staff there to rotate for the sake of safety and security,” he said.

In another development, communications have been lost with all enterprises and institutions in the port city of Mariupol that use Category 1-3 radiation sources and there was no information about their status, the regulator said. Such radioactive material can cause serious harm to people if not secured and managed properly.