IAEA chief expresses concerns over military activity near Zaporizhia NPP

13 September 2023

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Gross told a press conference during the recent Board of Governors’ meeting that he was very concerned about the situation at the Zaporizhia NPP (ZNPP). He noted that “artillery activity is almost constant”. IAEA experts based at the plant “have reported hearing numerous explosions over the past week, in a possible sign of increased military activity in the region that could also pose a potential threat to nuclear safety and security at the site, Grossi said in his latest update on the IAEA website.

The IAEA team heard around two dozen explosions over three days, followed by several more in following days. There was no damage to the plant itself. “The reports I receive from our experts indicate that the explosions occurred some distance away from the ZNPP. Nevertheless, I remain deeply concerned about the possible dangers facing the plant at this time of heightened military tension in the region,” Grossi noted, again stressing the importance of all parties adhering to the five concrete principles for the protection of the ZNPP.

The five basic principles 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. “Whatever happens in a conflict zone wherever it may be, everybody would stand to lose from a nuclear accident, and I urge that all necessary precautions must be taken to avoid it happening,” he said in his update statement.

Separately, the ZNPP informed the IAEA team that more drone strikes had taken place in the nearby city of Enerhodar – where many plant staff live with their families. No casualties were reported. In addition, the IAEA team was informed that the ZNPP had decided to temporarily reduce the number of personnel on the site to minimum levels over the next few days due to concerns of a higher risk of military activities in the area.

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.

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 also accused each other of destroying the Nova Kakhovka dam, drastically reducing levels in the Kakhovka reservoir, which provides cooling water for the plant.

IAEA experts observed the continued presence of mines between the perimeter fences, but they did not see any additional ones during their walkdown activities across the site, according to the latest update. However, they have still not been granted access to the rooftops of reactor units 1, 2, 5 and 6. The IAEA team has also been requesting a walkdown of all six turbine halls, one after the other, to be able to fully assess, at one time, whether there may be any items present that may be in contravention of the five principles. At present, this request has not been granted. “To monitor compliance with the five principles, we must be able to have full access,” Grossi said in the update. However, in reply to a question at the press conference he said the military presence at the plant was not growing and there was no heavy military equipment present.

Three months after the downstream Kakhovka dam was destroyed – causing the depletion of the huge reservoir that the ZNPP had been relying on to cool its reactors and used fuel – the plant continues work on expanding access to other sources of water, for example through the drilling of groundwater wells. So far, seven such wells of a planned total of 10-12 have been completed. In recent days, the IAEA team observed – on two separate occasions – the operation of these wells supplying the sprinkler ponds, which are located next to the six reactors and used for the plant’s cooling functions.

ZNPP has informed the IAEA team that the seven wells currently operating are accounting for just over half of the approximately 250 cubic metres of water per hour that are required to maintain the cooling water in the sprinkler ponds. This assumes all units remain in a shutdown state. The remaining volume of cooling water is currently pumped from the site’s drainage system. As a result of the new wells, the ZNPP also informed the IAEA that the height of the groundwater had only declined by a very minor level.

The IAEA team reported that the ZNPP is performing maintenance on different components and safety systems at the facility, whose six reactors remain shut down, one in hot shutdown and the others in cold shutdown. A water leak was detected in a recirculation valve of the essential service water system in reactor unit 5. To repair this, the site had to place one safety train of unit 5 and one of unit 6 offline. After the valve was repaired, the safety train of unit 6 was returned to stand-by mode, while that of unit 5 was kept offline for maintenance work. Each reactor at the ZNPP has three separate and independent redundant systems (also called “safety trains”) that together comprise the units’ safety systems, which are normally in stand-by mode ready to activate if needed to maintain the reactor unit’s safety. One safety train alone is capable of maintaining the reactor unit’s safety.

Maintenance activities of the safety systems of unit 4 are also taking place, including of its transformer, heat exchangers and emergency diesel generators. Once they are completed, the site will conduct the final test of the steam generator that was repaired after a water leak was detected in this unit last month.

Over the past week, the IAEA team also conducted other walkdown activities within the site perimeter, including at the main control room, emergency control room and the safety systems rooms of unit 6 and the turbine hall of unit 3 where the team reported that there was no military equipment present at the time of its visit. IAEA experts visited the turbine hall of reactor unit 1 where they observed a total of 15 vehicles, but no heavy weapons.

The ZNPP continues to receive off-site power from the last remaining 750 kilovolt (kV) power line and a single 330kV backup power line. The IAEA experts were informed by the ZNPP that the site currently does not have any information on the status of repairs of the damaged off-site power lines as they all pass through the military conflict areas.

Image: At a press conference held during the IAEA's recent Board of Governors Meeting, ???Director General Rafael Mariano Gross expressed his concerns about the current military activity around the Zaporizhia NPP in Ukraine (courtesy of IAEA)

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