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Zaporizhzhia: UN urges safety zone around nuclear plant

September 7, 2022

The International Atomic Energy Agency and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission arrives at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
After the IAEA mission visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the agency called for the establishment of a safety zone around the facilityImage: Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Tuesday called on Russia and Ukraine to establish a "nuclear safety and security protection zone" around the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP).

"We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place," Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA, warned the UN Security Council, days after leading an inspection visit to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

At the Security Council meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also demanded that Russian and Ukrainian forces agree on a "demilitarized perimeter."

According to Guterres, this would include "a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it.''

Grossi: 'They're playing with fire'

What was in the IAEA report following the visit to Zaporizhzhia?

In a report of the visit, the IAEA said shelling of the facility should cease immediately. "This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone" around the plant, it said.

The IAEA said shelling presented a major risk to nuclear safety. "The IAEA is still gravely concerned about the situation at the ZNPP — this hasn't changed," the report said.

It said the best course of action would be for the conflict to end, but failing that, a security area should be established. It also called for the removal of the Russian armored vehicles that the delegation observed at the plant.

What damages did the IAEA delegation observe?

During the visit, the IAEA said it saw numerous cases of damage, and at one point the delegation was forced to seek shelter from incoming shellfire.

The damaged infrastructure included a turbine lubrication oil tank; the roofs of several buildings including the one housing the spent fuel transporter vehicle; the building that houses fresh nuclear fuel and the solid radioactive waste storage facility; the new training building; the building with the central alarm system for the physical protection system; and the container holding radiation monitoring system which is near the dry spent fuel storage facility.

IAEA's Rafael Grossi: 'The physical integrity of the plant has been violated'

It heaped praise on the staff manning the plant, but said working and living conditions needed to improve for them to avoid the risk of a nuclear accident.

"The staff at all of Ukraine's nuclear facilities have continued to show endurance and resilience in keeping the sites running in a safe and secure way amid the conflict, and the IAEA salutes them," it said.

It said they were "under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available."

"This is not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety."

Kyiv and Moscow have repeatedly accused each other of shelling the plant. The Zaporizhzhia plant, along with most of the rest of the region, has been under Russian occupation since March, but is run by Ukrainian staff.

The IAEA did not weigh in on who they believed should be held accountable for the damage.

Reactions to the IAEA report

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the IAEA report, especially the part that mentioned Russian military hardware presence at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

"The report notes the presence of Russian military hardware on the territory of the nuclear power plant, pressure on our employees there, and makes clear references to the Russian military occupation. It's good," Zelenskyy said in his daily address.

The Ukrainian president also referred to the report's proposal for a security zone at the plant. He said if it was aimed at demilitarising "the territory of the nuclear power plant ... then we can support" it.

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, told DW the report did not go far enough.

"I think the UN Security Council needs to be more proactive. They need to empower a commission, something that they did that in 1999 for Iraq. At that time, they call that United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, and they need to really develop this thing in parallel with IAEA activities," Meshkati said.

dh/rt (AP, AFP, dpa)