The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will in the coming weeks send nuclear safety and security missions to three operating nuclear power plants in Ukraine, as well as to the Chornobyl site, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has said.

Following a request from Ukraine, an agreement has been reached between the government and the IAEA to dispatch teams of Agency nuclear safety and security experts to the South Ukraine, Khmelnytskyi and Rivne Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs). IAEA will also send its third such expert mission to Chornobyl since the conflict in Ukraine began in February. The IAEA already has a team of experts continuously present at the Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP). At all these facilities, the IAEA is also regularly carrying out safeguards activities, and has just completed in-field verification activities at three other locations in Ukraine at the request of its government, following allegations by the Russian Federation about activities there.

Initially, each mission will last for about a week, Grossi said, adding that they may be followed by others if needed. He previously led IAEA safety, security and safeguards missions to the South Ukraine and the Chornobyl NPPs – in March and April, respectively – as well as to the ZNPP in September to establish the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) there. IAEA experts carried out a second mission to Chornobyl in late May and early June.

“From the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the IAEA has been doing everything it can to prevent a nuclear accident with potentially serious consequences for public health and the environment. We have delivered nuclear safety and security equipment, produced impartial assessments of the situation, and provided technical expertise and advice. We are doing this important work in close cooperation with – and at the request of – the Ukrainian authorities,” Grossi said.

“Immediately after I received this latest request from Ukraine, we developed concrete proposals and began preparing the technical and logistical details and we are now ready to deploy these new missions soon. While the world is focused on the precarious nuclear safety and security situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, we must not forget the other nuclear facilities located in a country at war,” he said.

At the ZNPP, the six reactors are continuing to receive the off-site electricity they need for cooling and other essential nuclear safety and security functions from the one remaining operating 750 kilovolt (kV) external power line. The area has been relatively quiet recently, with reduced shelling at the site and in the industrial area near the town of Enerhodar.

“However, our experience shows that this can change at any time and suddenly take a new dangerous turn. This is not the time to relax. I’m continuing my determined efforts to agree and implement a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the plant as soon as possible. It remains urgently needed,” Grossi said.

Four of the plant’s reactors remain in cold shutdown, while the two others are in hot shutdown to provide steam for the plant and also heating for people living in Enerhodar, many of them workers at the plant and their families.

Last week, Ukrainian operating staff proposed to start operating reactor unit 6 at low power to provide more steam, while still not producing electricity. The Ukrainian regulator subsequently approved the request. However, the Russian operating organisation did not give its permission on the grounds of the site’s unreliable connections to the power grid and therefore this unit remains in hot shutdown.

Director General Grossi expressed concern about the decision-making situation as it showed open contradictions regarding the chain of command at the plant, Europe’s largest.

With the creation of a Moscow-based Russian state operating organisation for the site, the Russian Federation has announced it has taken control of the facility, including now taking significant operational decisions, and more Russian technical staff are present at the site. However, Ukrainian plant staff continue to undertake day-to-day operations of the ZNPP facility, under high and relentless stress.

“The Ukrainian staff are carrying out their vital tasks under constant pressure. This can have a negative impact on nuclear safety and security and increase the risk of a nuclear accident, and it must stop. Exacerbating the situation, they are now also faced with conflicting instructions on how to run the plant,” he said.

In another sign of this, a Russian contractor has been undertaking modifications of the physical protection system of the plant’s dry used fuel storage facility, which were not authorised by the competent Ukrainian authority. On 11 November the IAEA team visited the dry used fuel storage facility and saw that IAEA safeguards seals on the used fuel casks were in place, and no immediate safeguards issues were identified.

Separately, a convoy of 24 trucks from Zaporizhzhia town arrived at the plant on 13 November with supplies and spare parts, including chemical agents, electrical components, and electric heaters for the winter.

Image: IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the Zaporizhzhia site (courtesy of IAEA)