The UN atomic watchdog agency urged Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday to establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid mounting fears the fighting could trigger a catastrophe in a country still haunted by the Chornobyl disaster.
In a report following a visit by an inspection team last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said “shelling on site and in its vicinity should be stopped immediately to avoid any further damages to the plant and associated facilities, for the safety of the operating staff and to maintain the physical integrity to support safe and secure operation.”
“This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant, it said.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, who led the inspection team last week, was due to brief the UN Security Council later Tuesday on his findings.
Shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear plant on Tuesday, a day after it was again knocked off Ukraine’s electrical grid and put in the precarious position of relying on its own power to run its safety systems.
Russian-installed officials accused Ukrainian forces of shelling Enerhodar, the city where the plant is situated, while the Ukrainians said Kremlin forces attacked the city of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the power station.
The Ukrainian mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, reported a powerful blast in the city around midday. The explosion left the city of 53,000 cut off from its power and water supplies. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the blast.
World leaders have called for the demilitarization of the plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war but is being run by Ukrainian engineers.
In its report, the IAEA noted that on several occasions, the plant lost, fully or in part, its off-site power supply because of military activity in the area. The plant normally relies on outside power to run critical cooling systems for its reactors and spent fuel. A loss of those cooling systems could lead to a nuclear meltdown.
The UN agency said a backup power supply line should be re-established and asked that “all military activities that may affect the power supply systems end.”
In addition, the IAEA warned that the Ukrainian staff operating the plant under Russian military occupation is “under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available” — a situation that could “lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety.”
It recommended that “an appropriate work environment, including family support,” be re-established.
The IAEA also said the staff is not being given unrestricted access to some parts of the plant and must get permission from the Russian occupying forces to reach the cooling ponds where spent fuel is kept. Grossi expressed concern that that could hamper the staff’s response in an emergency.
The report said the team saw Russian military personnel, vehicles and equipment at various locations, including several military trucks on the floor of two turbine halls. It called for “the removal of vehicles from areas that could interfere with the operation of safety and security systems and equipment.”
Two inspectors from the IAEA mission remained at the plant, a decision welcomed by Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
“There are Russian troops now who don’t understand what’s happening, don’t assess the risks correctly,” Podolyak said. “There is a number of our workers there, who need some kind of protection, people from the international community standing by their side and telling (Russian troops): ‘Don’t touch these people, let them work.'”
‘Any repairs are impossible at this point’
On Monday, the IAEA said Ukrainian authorities reported that the plant’s last transmission line linking it to the nation’s power grid was disconnected to allow workers to put out a fire caused by shelling.
Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told Ukrainian television: “Any repairs are impossible at this point — there are ongoing hostilities around the plant.”
In the meantime, the plant’s only remaining operational reactor will “generate the power the plant needs for its safety and other functions,” the IAEA said.
Mycle Schneider, an independent analyst in Canada on nuclear energy, said that means the plant was probably functioning in “island mode,” or producing electricity just for its own operations.
“Island mode is a very shaky, unstable and unreliable way to provide continuous power supply to a nuclear plant,” Schneider said.
Experts say the reactors at Zaporizhzhia are designed to withstand natural disasters and even plane crashes, but the unpredictable fighting has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the cooling systems. Ukraine in 1986 was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the explosion at Chornobyl.
Ukrainian intelligence reported that residents of Enerhodar were fleeing the city out of fear. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia should organize safe corridors for women and children living nearby.
“People en masse are reaching out to us for help. They are trying to leave to the dangerous territory, but there are no corridors,” Vereshchuk told Ukrainian TV.
Meanwhile, gunfire and explosions were heard in the afternoon in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine, with Russia’s state-run media reporting that the car of the Kremlin-installed “city commandant” had been blown up. The RIA Novosti news agency said that the official, Artem Bardin, was in serious condition and that a shootout followed the assassination attempt.
The news agency quoted Russian-backed local officials as saying they had launched a manhunt for the “Ukrainian saboteurs” responsible.
In the southern Kherson region, occupied by the Russians since early on in the war, Ukrainian forces continued their counteroffensive. A pontoon bridge was blown up overnight and a command centre was hit, as well as two checkpoints, Ukrainian authorities said.