Growing concern about Zaporizhzya NPP sparks international diplomacy

22 August 2022

Zaporizhzhia NPPThe Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, has renewed his urgent appeal for maximum military restraint in the area of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP) following new signs of rising tension.

Just over a week after he briefed the United Nations Security Council on the worsening nuclear safety and security situation at the ZNPP, Director General Grossi warned that any further escalation related to the six-reactor plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with potentially grave consequences for human health and the environment in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The previous day, the Russian Defense Ministry said ZNPP had been systematically shelled by the Ukrainian military since 18 July. By 18 August, 12 attacks had already been recorded, during which more than 50 explosions of artillery shells were recorded on the territory of the NPP and the operators’ city of Energodar, it said. Ukraine continued to insist that Russia was responsible for the shelling.

In view of the serious situation, Grossi reiterated the need to send an IAEA mission to carry out essential safety, security and safeguards activities at the site in southern Ukraine. He said the IAEA is in active consultations with all parties regarding its efforts to send such a mission as soon as possible. As during two previous IAEA missions to Ukraine during the conflict, Director General Grossi would himself lead this mission.

The IAEA has not been able to visit the ZNPP since before the conflict began half a year ago. Since early March, it has been controlled by Russian forces, but the Ukrainian staff are continuing to operate the plant. Moscow has repeatedly over the past several months urged IAEA to visit ZNPP, but Petro Kotin, head of the Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom, has refused to contemplate this as long as Russia remains in control of the plant. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently agreed that an IAEA mission should visit the plant, but insisted that it must travel through Kyiv and Ukrainian territory. Russia, for its part has said the only safe way to reach the plant is through Russian territory, noting that travelling from Kyiv would entail passing through the frontline putting IAEA personnel at risk.

Tension reached a peak on 18 August with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of planning a major provocation at ZNPP, sparking some mediation efforts. The matter was discussed during a meeting in the Ukrainian city of Lviv between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. While it was generally agreed that an IAEA mission should visit the plant as soon as possible, Zelensky, echoing Kotin, told reporters afterwards that Russia must withdraw. Erdogan express concern about the situation and Guterres warned that any damage to the plant would be akin to "suicide”.

The following day, during a visit to the southern port of Odessa Guterres said: "Obviously, the electricity from Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian electricity. This principle must be fully respected."

His remarks came after Energoatom alleged that Russian troops were planning to "shut off the reactors" at the plant. This, in turn, was a response to a comment from Russia’s Defence Ministry that the two ZNPP units still operating would have to be closed down for safety reasons if the shelling of the plant continued.

On 19 August, French President initiated a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss ZNPP. According to the official report of the call by the Elysée Palace, Macron “expressed his support for sending a mission of IAEA experts to the site as quickly as possible, under conditions approved by Ukraine and the UN”. The report continued: “The Russian President indicated his agreement to the deployment of this mission and the terms that were discussed. The two presidents will speak about this subject again in the next few days following discussions between the technical teams and before the deployment of the mission. This version, which appeared to indicate that Russia had accepted agreed that the IAEA mission could travel via Ukraine, was widely reported in the international press.

However, the Kremlin’s report of the discussion said nothing about “conditions approved by Ukraine”. It simply said: “Both leaders noted the importance of sending an IAEA mission to the power plant as soon as possible to allow experts to assess the situation on the ground. The Russian side confirmed its readiness to provide the necessary assistance to the agency's inspectors.” It added that the presidents of Russia and France “agreed to maintain contact on the issues raised”.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent envoy to the IAEA told a press briefing on 19 August that an IAEA inspection team to ZNPP could be organised within two weeks. “Forecasts don’t always come true, but my sense is that it can happen in early September,” he said. However, he stressed that the proposed timeline is conditional on non-interference by “external factors that have nothing to do with the goals of the IAEA visit”. He recalled that the mission should have been launched in June, but the plan failed, and “in a sense, things have to be done from scratch now”. It remains to be seen whether the clearly continuing deep differences of approach between Russia and Ukraine regarding the ZNPP can be resolved by international diplomacy.

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