International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors arrived at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on Friday to observe damage to the Russian-controlled facility as fighting continues around the plant. The IAEA wants to keep two experts on an extensive basis at the factory, but the agency’s power to change conditions at the factory – including reported fear and exhaustion on the part of Ukrainian workers, fierce fighting around the factory and Russian attempts to rebuild the factory on its own grid to connect — is limited.
After his five-hour visit on Friday, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi briefed reporters back in Vienna at the agency’s headquarters, saying his main concern was damage to the building during heavy shelling in August. It is still unclear who is responsible for those shellings, as Ukraine and Russia have exchanged accusations back and forth. But now that the independent IAEA inspectors are in attendance, “if there is an allegation that something happened at the factory, you can turn to us,” Grossi said.
Efforts to get a monitoring team from the IAEA, a UN agency, were underway, but were at their worst in August as fighting intensified around the factory. Ukraine has launched an offensive in recent weeks to reclaim Russian-occupied territory to the south and southeast; while much of the pressure is currently focused on the city of Kherson, the Zaporizhzhia plant is still quite close to the front – about 60 miles from Kherson itself and on the northern border of the Russian-occupied territory.
Given the potential for catastrophe and the lack of independent understanding of the factory situation, Grossi focused on the: UN Security Council on August 11, again calling for a mission to Zaporizhzhya; the agency has for months asked to go to the facility to provide supervision and technical assistance. Since Russia and Ukraine, as parties to the conflict, have provided the agency with inconsistent information about the safety and operation of the plant, Grossi stressed the need to find an independent fact-finding mission. “It is those facts, gathered during a site visit, that the IAEA needs to develop and deliver an independent risk assessment of nuclear safety and security risks,” he said at the time.
The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is the largest in Europe, supplying about 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity and half of its nuclear power before the war, the report said. Washington Post. It still produces energy, including energy for export to Europe – one of Ukraine’s limited methods of generating income in wartime, especially as the conflict is choking the country’s agricultural exports. However, that makes the reactors vulnerable not only to occupation and attack, but also to limited supply lines for spare parts and the potential for Russia to divert power from the plant to its own grid — a delicate process where there is a risk that the power supply to cool the reactors.
“Nuclear is a fear factor, and it is also a power factor,” Cindy Vestergaard, senior fellow and director of the nuclear safety program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, told cafemadrid on Saturday. something very dear to Russia, and that is its power over energy resources. And so nuclear energy is at the heart of geopolitics, it is at the heart of energy policy and of course for the world to keep the lights on.”
What did it take to get the IAEA team to Zaporizhzhya?
At the moment, few details are known about the monitoring mission – and the negotiations that will allow it to proceed -. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that: 14 experts left Kiev to travel to the factory in Zaporizhzhia, pass through military checkpoints and actively fight to reach the facility.
“This is totally unprecedented — we’ve never had an active conflict in a country that also has such a robust nuclear power program. It’s the seventh largest nuclear power program in the world,” Vestergaard said. agency should do is clearly between Ukraine and Russia,” she said, and would include “a lot of detail, even down to commas, about how things would be outlined to handle the agency.”
One point of negotiation was whether the team would enter and leave the Ukrainian or Russian occupied territory. The mission chose to travel to the facility from Kiev through Ukrainian territory, possibly to legitimize the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhya plant. But even something as mundane as the route the mission used to reach the area affected their journey. “[The IAEA mission] does not receive a special pass”, Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian occupation forces told the Times. “They had the chance to get out of Russia safely, quickly and without obstacles through the liberated area.” Russia has also refused calls to demilitarize the area, putting the factory at an ongoing risk of damage from shelling.
Russia has an interest in the monitoring team’s visit, Scott Roecker, vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s materials security program, told cafemadrid on Saturday. “I think it was in the interest of the Russians to get the IAEA there for a number of reasons,” he said. “One, so that it could show that the reactor was still in operation and that the plant was up and running. Also, to some extent, having an international organization on site, having inspectors there – it legitimizes to some extent Russia’s presence there.”
Despite the logistical challenges of the mission and the restrictions imposed by Russian officials, said at a press conference on Friday that he had open access to everything he asked to see — a positive preliminary step that will hopefully provide critical, independent information about the plant’s condition for the agency’s report to the board of directors when that body meets next week. From there, Roecker said, information and recommendations can reach the diplomatic level and provide valuable insights and context for further negotiations. But, as Vestergaard emphasized, this mission is just the beginning.
“I hope one report won’t be enough,” she said. “It will be a series of on-the-ground, on-site, continuous monitoring and physical presence in the facility in the future.”
How much can the inspectors change in the factory?
The mission’s mandate covers three elements within the Zaporizhzhya facility: the security of its operations, the security of the facility in general, and the security of the nuclear material produced there. The mission can collect and disseminate information about these elements, but “these are inspectors, they cannot decide to start operating the plant in a certain way if they feel it is not being operated in a safe manner,” Roecker said. “They really don’t interfere with the people who run the site from a Russian perspective, and the Ukrainian operators.”
The agency also has no oversight or negotiating power regarding military activities around the facility. However, it can — and has – advised to stop the fighting immediately.
While powerless in a legal and logistical sense, the information the mission could share is powerful, Roecker said. “We’re getting an unbiased source within that facility, sharing information, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure.” […] to ensure that any concerns they raise are addressed in some way. There’s nothing they can do on their own, but the simple fact that they’re there – the information they’ll give and the recommendations they’ll give will get a lot of attention and there will be a lot of pressure to make those changes.”
As of Saturday, the parties involved have agreed to allow two inspectors to remain in the area, but for how long is as yet unclear. “My biggest flag will be, if they leave they can get back in someday,” said Vestergaard.
But some Ukrainian officials want a stronger response from the agency. “I hope that the IAEA will eventually be able to fulfill its functions,” said Oleksandr Staruhk, head of Zaporizhzhya’s regional military administration. told Uinform. “There is hope that the international organization will draw conclusions taking into account all threats, and together we will protect the world from the absolutely real threat from Russia. Either we solve the existing problems together, or someone else solves them for us.”
In the longer term, as more countries consider nuclear power to combat climate change, the agency and the world will have to consider how to deal with the possibility of weaponizing civilian nuclear power plants. This requires better treaties and agreements around nuclear energy in general, and civilian facilities in particular, as well as: diversification of the nuclear supply chain. As many countries depend on Russian fuel, technology and spent fuel reprocessing to maintain their nuclear power production, some European stakeholders are currently looking for ways to move away from dependence on Russia’s nuclear dominance.
What the IAEA is doing in Zaporizhzhya will have ripple effects in the future, Vestergaard told cafemadrid. “This will set a precedent for how the agency will handle facilities under its jurisdiction in active conflict zones,” she said. “Hopefully we won’t find ourselves in a situation like this again, but as more states acquire nuclear power for civilian purposes, we need to consider it in the future. This is a game changer.”