The site of Ukraine’s Zaporozhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) was hit by new shelling and explosions this week, breaking windows in one of its turbine halls and once again underlining the urgent need to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the plant, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on 27 September.

IAEA experts present at the ZNPP reported to Agency headquarters that shelling took place at around 5pm local time the previous day near the facility’s electrical switchyard, a few hundred meters from the plant’s training centre, but there were no reports of damage. Other explosions were heard further away. On 27 September, at 8am, two explosions occurred near a channel that carries water from a reservoir to the plant for its cooling system, an essential element for nuclear safety. There was no damage to plant structures and equipment, but windows in the turbine hall of reactor unit 2 were broken, the IAEA experts said. According to senior ZNPP operating staff, the cause of the blasts is currently unclear and is being investigated, the Agency experts added.

The latest shelling and explosions at the ZNPP site come after a few days without any such incidents. They show that the overall situation remains precarious and that immediate action is needed to reduce the risk of a major accident at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, now located in the middle of a war zone, Director General Grossi said.

The previous week, in New York, Grossi began talks with Russia and Ukraine aimed at agreeing and implementing a nuclear safety and security protection zone, and he told the IAEA’s 66th General Conference that he was ready to continue consultations in both countries.

The safety at ZNPP became the main topic on the opening day of the General Conference on 26 September. In his opening address Grossi said: “Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, I have not only expressed my concerns about the safety and security of the nuclear installations in the country and of the people who work and live there, but also endeavoured to improve it. We must do everything in our power to prevent a nuclear accident that would add tragedy to the suffering. We need to act. If something happens there, we will not have a natural disaster to blame, we will have to reckon with our own inaction.”

He noted that four IAEA missions had travelled to Ukraine, three of which he had led. “The most recent mission was the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Ukraine’s Zaporozhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ISAMZ), Ukraine and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. It took us six months of painstaking negotiation to get the team there and I want to thank you for your support in making it happen. The IAEA now has a permanent presence at the site, allowing us to engage directly with the Ukrainian operator to see first-hand the situation, and to assess, assist and find ways to help stabilise it.”

He added: “I have called for the urgent establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone to stop shelling damaging the plant and its crucial offsite power supply. Last week I held high-level meetings in New York where this proposal received strong international support. I have begun detailed talks with Ukraine and the Russian Federation aimed at agreeing and implementing the zone as soon as possible. We know what needs to be done. It is possible. I am ready to continue consultations in both countries this week so that we can protect this plant.”

Alexei Likhachev, Director General of Rosatom, spoke about the measures that Russia is taking to ensure the safety of this nuclear facility. "Ensuring nuclear safety and physical protection of nuclear facilities and installations is an absolute priority, wherever these facilities are located." He said that several employees of Rosatom are constantly at the station helping to maintain security, although they do not manage or control the station. Je emphasised that no Russian Armed Forces are present ZNPP, only employees of the National Guard who guard the station, as well as special vehicles belonging to the radiation, chemical and biological protection forces.

Likhachev said there was "an unprecedented level of politicisation of the activities of a number of international organisations," as well as "attempts by a number of member states to turn the agency into a platform for promoting political positions”. He noted the importance of the IAEA maintaining its professional and non-politicised approach. He confirmed the readiness of Russia "to cooperate on the technical aspects of the protection zone and the physical nuclear safety of the Zaporozhzhia NPP”.

The |Ukrainian representative continued to insist on the withdrawal of Rosatom specialists from the territory of the plant and called on the IAEA leadership and the world community to "use all the levers" of influencing Russia. The Minister of Climate and Environment of Poland, Anna Moskva, proposed excluding Russia from the IAEA if Russian personnel did not leave the ZNPP.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm read out an address by US President Joe Biden, which said “Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities casts doubt upon Moscow’s commitment to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and undermines its credibility as a nuclear energy supplier … My Administration reaffirms our support for Director General Grossi’s Seven Pillars of nuclear safety and security, and we call on Russia to immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine—and cease military activity at and near Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.”

Grossi told journalists on the sidelines of the General Conference that he expected to visit Russia and Ukraine this week to continue negotiations on the situation at ZNPP. Sources close to the situation told NEI that the preliminary discussions had been considering a protective zone with a radius of eight kilometres around the plant. However, according to the same sources, Ukraine had refused to receive Grossi pending the results of the referenda being carried out in the areas of Ukraine under Russian control, namely Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and part of Zaporozhzhia which includes ZNPP.

According to the results of those referenda, which ended on 27 September, all four regions voted with massive majorities (over 90%) to become part of the Russian Federation. The referenda have been described as “sham” by Ukraine, the US and the European Union, despite the presence of hundreds of international observers who found no evidence of coercion or undemocratic practices.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Rogov, a representative of the Main Council of the Zaporozhzhia Military-Civil Administration, told RIA Novosti on 28 September that Zaporozhzhia region hopes for the transfer of the ZNPP to the ownership of Russia once the region becomes spart of Russia. "Zaporozhzhia NPP should not be left to Ukrainian terrorists. It should become the property of Russia, no separate statuses and subordinations of the nuclear power plant are needed,” he said. However, any such transfer would be extremely complex, even in the unlikely event that Ukraine agreed, sources close to the situation explained to NEI. Clearly Russia would have to compensate Ukraine for the property and infrastructure and financial arrangements would then have to be made relating to the supply of the power from the plant to regions of Ukraine. Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom has so far made no comment on the latest developments.

Image: The ZNPP building outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar in Zaporozhzhia region, Ukraine