The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called today for the creation of a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, warning the Security Council of a potential catastrophe should the facility sustain further physical assault amid reports of shelling.
“We are playing with fire,” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned, as he outlined the findings from the newly released report on the IAEA’s “historic” Mission to Zaporizhzhia last week to assess the conditions — a visit that resulted from “painstaking” efforts to corroborate facts observed over six months.
Laying out the issues in stark terms, Mr. Grossi said the physical attacks sustained by the facility — and that he personally assessed — are simply unacceptable. Operators are working under “extremely challenging” circumstances. Military vehicles and equipment inside nuclear buildings must be removed so as not to interfere with the normal operations of the nuclear safety and security system.
Further, he said operating staff must be allowed to return to the plant’s routine line of authority — an issue raised “time and again” since March, when the plant first became occupied. The off-site power line redundancy must be re-established. “Without this, we could have a very serious nuclear accident,” he stressed.
He pressed all parties to ensure the effective operation of supply chains, highlighting IAEA assistance and support programmes available to help re-establish them, as they did in Chernobyl. IAEA can also help monitor radiation systems, he said, stressing that all reliable means of communications must also be restored. “We are ready to consult quickly with the parties,” he said. The report is considered an interim step until longer-term measures can be put in place.
In line with those remarks, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said any damage, whether intentional or not, to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia could spell catastrophe, adding that “all steps must be taken to avoid such a scenario”.
As a first step, Russian and Ukrainian forces must commit not to engage in any military activity towards or from the plant site, he said. It must not be a target or a platform for military operations. As a second step, an agreement on a demilitarized perimeter should be secured. Specifically, that 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.
He trusted that the IAEA experts now deployed to Zaporizhzhia would be able to carry out their work without hindrance, he said. “All of us have a stake in the success of their critical mission.”
Taking the floor first in the ensuing debate, the Russian Federation’s representative said the visit offered IAEA an opportunity to see that the only threats were those from the shelling and sabotage by Ukrainian armed forces. This was evident in the Director General’s statement of concern over the plant’s physical integrity. “It is important that you were able to see with your own eyes that, thanks to cooperation between ZNPP staff and the Russian armed forces protecting the station, it is functioning normally,” he said.
Most other delegations welcomed that the Mission could finally take place and that IAEA now has an ongoing presence at Zaporizhzhia, with Germany’s delegate pointing out that his country, in its national capacity and as the Group of 7 President, was among those that pushed for the IAEA Mission to be deployed as a matter of urgency.
The United States representative stressed that, despite the Russian Federation’s “song and dance”, the situation stems from that country’s 4 March seizure of the plant and conduct of military operations in its vicinity. He — like several of his counterparts — called on the Russian Federation to end all military operations and to return full control to Ukraine.
Albania’s delegate wondered aloud about the motive of the Russian Federation to attack, overrun, occupy and militarize a nuclear power plant in another country. He also questioned why that country had not agreed to establish a secure perimeter in order to avoid any incidents.
To that point, the United Kingdom’s representative underscored that the situation was akin to “playing roulette with nuclear safety”. Describing the pressure under which the Plant’s staff were working, she said: “They are no longer workers, but hostages being held at gunpoint.”
Norway’s delegate took a step further to equate the seizure of the plant with the hostage taking of an essential source of power supply. It is totally unacceptable that a nuclear plant has become a frontline in the Russian war against Ukraine, she said.
Calling for an independent, impartial investigation to establish responsibility when military activity is damaging to nuclear facilities, Gabon’s representative stressed his delegation “cannot be satisfied by half measures, given the scope of the danger”. Existing rules of nuclear security must be abided to in order to ensure that the site is safe.
Mexico’s delegate urged the Agency to continue sharing with the Council any relevant information, expressing hope that IAEA’s visit and permanent presence at the plant will foster early negotiations to end hostilities in Ukraine
The representative of India, meanwhile, issued calls for diplomacy, pointing to the successful export of grains from Ukraine and food and fertilizers from the Russian Federation to make her point. “Differences can be resolved through sustained dialogue,” she said.
To that idea, Ukraine’s representative countered that the only way to remove the nuclear threat is for the Russian Federation to withdraw its weapons and troops, and to return the station to the full legitimate control of his country. Under no circumstance has Ukraine ever used forceful military actions in relation to the plant, he insisted. Only by strengthening sanctions and officially recognizing the Russian Federation as a terrorist State, at all levels, will the situation be corrected.
Also speaking today were representatives of Brazil, Ireland, United Arab Emirates, China, Ghana, Kenya and France.
The meeting began at 3:05 p.m. and ended at 4:53 p.m.