IAEA report calls for ‘urgent’ action at Ukrainian nuclear plant

The UN’s nuclear watchdog has called for a security and safety zone to be set up around the Zaporizhzhia atomic power station, as it detailed the extensive damage its inspectors found during their visit to the plant that has been occupied by Russian forces.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Tuesday it was “gravely concerned” by the situation at the facility, which has been continually shelled and fought over since it was taken by Russia in the early weeks of its full-scale invasion, calling it “not sustainable”.

“There is an urgent need for interim measures to prevent a nuclear accident arising from physical damage caused by military means” at the Zaporizhzhia plant, the report read. “This can be achieved by the immediate establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone.”

But the document, written by IAEA experts who visited Zaporizhzhia last week, stopped short of apportioning blame for the damage, which Ukraine and Russia have blamed on each other.

The IAEA warning came as Petro Kotin, head of the Ukrainian company that operates Europe’s biggest nuclear facility, warned that on a scale of one to 10, the plant’s danger level was “between seven and eight, but that is optimistic and anything could happen at any time”.

“In one minute, we could be at 10,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Ukrainian officials have stressed the risks of the Russian occupation at the plant. Shelling continued around the facility on Tuesday, a day after it was severed from its connection to the wider Ukrainian electric grid for the first time, leaving it relying on its own power to run safety systems.

Although Zaporizhzhia’s reactors are designed to withstand the impact of an aircraft, the fighting has threatened to disrupt the operations of its water cooling systems, increasing the risk of meltdown. “This situation could bring us to nuclear catastrophe,” Kotin said.

Energoatom chief Petro Kotin
Energoatom chief Petro Kotin said if the coolers stopped working, the reactor would melt down in ‘about 90 minutes’ © Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey/Reuters

Kotin has backed calls from Kyiv and western officials for the area to be demilitarised. The IAEA noted in its report that the plant had been shelled while its inspectors were visiting.

The report noted how the IAEA mission had “witnessed shelling in the vicinity of the [plant] . . . in particular on 3 September when the team was instructed to evacuate” to the ground floor of a building.

They “observed damage at different locations caused by reported events with some of the damage being close to the reactor buildings,” the report added, including to the premises used to store fresh nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste.

Zaporizhzhia, located outside the southern Ukrainian town of Energodar, is operated by Ukrainian employees overseen by Russian troops and representatives from Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom.

It has become a symbol of the wider risks of Russia’s war in Ukraine, now into its seventh month, given that this is the first time that an occupied nuclear power station has been at the centre of a war zone.

Kotin said that, with the power cut off this week, the cooling system was powered by a back-up turbine that should only run for two hours but that had been going for the entire day.

Another back-up system of diesel generators only had enough fresh fuel for 10 days. Supplying them with fresh fuel to keep the water pumps going was “very difficult as they require 200 tonnes of diesel a day” and “there are no logistics for that”, he said. The IAEA report noted similar concerns.

The Energoatom chief added that if the coolers stopped working, the reactor would melt down in “about 90 minutes”, risking a disaster similar to the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan.

Ukrainian maintenance workers at the plant were waiting for spare parts to reconnect it to the wider power grid, but “nobody knows if the Russians will block them”, according to Kotin.

He said shelling of the plant began about a month ago, soon after its Russian occupiers presented a detailed 10-page plan to the plant’s managers to disconnect it from the Ukrainian grid and feed its power to Russian-occupied Crimea instead.

The Energoatom boss lamented that the situation had not improved since the IAEA visit. “Do you see any changes? It’s even getting worse,” he said. “Put UN peacekeepers in there, if you want, and everything will be normal,” he added.

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