Attack on Zaporizhia NPP may have been averted

6 July 2023

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi says IAEA experts present at Ukraine’s Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP) have in recent days and weeks inspected parts of the facility – including some sections of the perimeter of the large cooling pond – and have also conducted regular walkdowns across the site, so far without observing any visible indications of mines or explosives.

He was responding to ongoing reports that a military attack on the plant was being planned. Ukrainian officials had accused Russia of planting explosives on the plant site while Russian officials warned of a Ukrainian false flag operation to damage the plant which would then be attributed to Russia. Grossi said IAEA experts have requested additional access that is necessary to confirm the absence of mines or explosives at the site. In particular, access to the rooftops of reactor units 3 & 4 is essential, as well as access to parts of the turbine halls and some parts of the cooling system at the plant, he added.

Grossi stressed the importance of the IAEA team checking all parts of the ZNPP to monitor full compliance with the five basic principles for protecting Europe’s largest nuclear power plant during the current military conflict, following the opposing statements and allegations in recent days regarding the military situation at the site.

“With military tension and activities increasing in the region where this major nuclear power plant is located, our experts must be able to verify the facts on the ground. Their independent and objective reporting would help clarify the current situation at the site, which is crucial at a time like this with unconfirmed allegations and counter allegations,” he said.

The five basic principles for the protection of the ZNPP that Director General Grossi established on 30 May at the United Nations Security Council state that there should be no attack from or against the plant and that it should not be used as storage or a base for heavy weapons – multiple rocket launchers, artillery systems and munitions, and tanks. Separately, the IAEA team reported that the single remaining main external 750 kilovolt (kV) power line had been reconnected to the ZNPP some 12 hours after it was suddenly cut, leaving the plant reliant on back-up power supplies.

Russian officials said they had expected an attack on the plant on the night of 4 July, which did not occur, reportedly because of intense international pressure on Ukraine. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the following day that the situation remained tense warning that “the threat of sabotage from the Kiev regime is remains great – sabotage, which can be disastrous in its consequences”. He said that, by blowing up the Nova Kakhovkha dam Ukraine had shown that there were no limits to its possible actions. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also warned of a possible attack. However, Peskov noted that Russia was taking every possible measure to counter such threats.

Since Russia took control of ZNPP in March 2022 as part of its special military operation in Ukraine, the Russian national guard, Rosgvardiya, has been protecting the station. In October 2022, 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.

Reports by Russian military analysts have continued to suggest that retaking control of ZNPP is one of the main objectives of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. There have been four unsuccessful attempts by Ukrainian forces to storm the plant since September 2022. 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 Nova Kakhovka dam, which has drastically reduced levels in the Kakhovka reservoir, which provides cooling water for the plant.

The past few weeks have seen repeated statements by Ukrainian officials warning that Russia was preparing to “blow up” ZNPP with Ukraine also launching emergency drills in preparation for possible radioactive contamination. On 4 July Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, citing “intelligence sources” alleged that Russia had placed objects "similar to explosives" on the roof of the ZNPP reactor buildings to simulate a strike on the station, adding that he did not rule out that Moscow may have a "different scenario". The Ukrainian Ministry of Health then published a memo on actions to be taken in the event of an explosion at ZNPP advising residents to be prepared for possible evacuation. In response to recent IAEA statements, Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to the head of Zelensky's office described Director General Grossi as a "puppet" and his activities as "clownery".

On the evening of the same day, Renat Karchaa, a senior aide to the head of Rosenergoatom, citing intelligence data received by Rosatom, warned about an imminent strike on ZNPP. “On 5 July , literally overnight, while it’s still dark, Ukrainian forces will attempt an attack on the ZNPP with long-range high-precision munitions, as well as suicide drones,” he told Rossiya 24 TV channel. He added that Kiev’s back up plan was to attack the plant with a heavy, Soviet-made Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile, filled with radioactive waste. The apparent goal was to increase radioactivity readings in the region as the first strike failed to damage the facility enough to cause the release of hazardous materials. He said the radioactive waste on 3 July had been taken from the South Ukraine NPP to a military airfield.

Although no strike took place, Karchaa warned the next day that tension would remain high until the NATO summit in Vilnius, scheduled for 11-12 July. He said a number of European leaders had contacted Zelensky to convince him not to damage the NPP. “There were very intensive consultations between European leaders and Zelensky, convincing them that nothing irreparable should happen." The head of Russia’s State Duma Committee on International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, also mentioned these contacts on his Telegram channel. Russina military expert, Candidate of Chemical Sciences Oleg Zheltonozhko told Regnum news agency. That French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders had called Kiev all evening on 4 July.

Zheltonozhko questioned whether destruction of the NPP had been planned suggesting that the aim was to declare that the situation at the plant was out of control, creating the appearance of an environmental catastrophe “using radioactive materials from nuclear facilities on Ukrainian territory”. He noted that the plant was very robust and that Ukraine did not have the weapons which could breach the reactor buildings. “To cause significant damage, you need to hit the same point over a long period. It takes time, which Kiev does not have.”

According to former State Duma deputy and expert on nuclear terrorism Maxim Shingarkin: “Through the IAEA, we issued an ultimatum to the Americans to suspend these actions by the Kiev regime, which are beyond acceptable. The Americans appreciated this ultimatum and presented Zelensky with strict requirements not to do anything of the kind.”

DON24.RU quoted a source in the office of the President of Ukraine (OP) as saying that the Ukrainian nuclear scientists also tried to dissuade Zelensky from any provocation at ZNPP. Reportedly, during a meeting at the field headquarters of the Ukrainian command at the Rivne NPP, they explained that the planned operation would not have the desired effect. Zelensky was told that possible damage to ZNPP, including its used fuel store, would not be comparable with the Chernobyl accident, which involved a nuclear explosion.

They explained that the main radioactive pollutants in used fuel are iodine-131, strontium-90, caesium-137 and cobalt-60. “These are heavy elements, and they will settle within 3-10 km of the strike, depending on the wind strength and possible precipitation. “Zelensky was told that the consequences would be eliminated by emergency crews within a week. Moreover, it would only take a day to monitor, analyse and make decisions, and from three to seven days to eliminate the consequences at the site.”

Certainly, the tone of reports in the Western press, which had previously repeated Ukrainian allegations, flagging up the dangers of Russian provocations, changed dramatically on 5 July. In an interview with Romanian TV channel Digi 24, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana said the alliance had no information about the risks of an attack on ZNPP. "I have followed the statements made by both sides. We have no information confirming the inevitability of such actions, which would constitute irresponsible actions. We are concerned, but from the point of view of the information that we have from the allies, we do not see the reality of an imminent attack."

According to Sky News, images of American satellite company Planet Labs did not show any large explosive devices on the roof of the ZNPP. “Our experts have been unable to independently verify the claims made by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said ‘devices that look like explosives’ were on top of reactors three and four. Sky also spoke to Eugene Shwageraus, a professor of nuclear energy systems engineering at Cambridge University and asked him if a large explosion at the plant would scatter any of the remaining radioactive materials further afield. He replied: “"A bit further means you will contaminate the parking lot of that power plant."

The London Times carried an interview with the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence, Kirill Budanov who, the previous week had issued strident warnings about the possibility of Russian attacks on ZNPP. “For reasons he declined to reveal, he said that that threat was now diminishing,” the paper noted. It continued: “We are doing certain actions in this area, both public and not public,” he said evasively, “and I think now that the danger of an artificial technogenic catastrophe is quietly going down.”

Image: Zaporizhia nuclear power plant and shallow Kakhovka reservoir

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