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IAEA ‘Gravely Concerned’ for Safety of Ukraine’s Nuclear Plants

This image made from a video released by the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant shows a bright flaring object landing on the grounds of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, March 4, 2022.
This image made from a video released by the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant shows a bright flaring object landing on the grounds of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, March 4, 2022.

Even before Russian forces shelled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, sparking a fire in a nearby building early Friday, Ukraine’s main nuclear regulatory agency had sought “immediate assistance” from the international nuclear agency.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Wednesday he had received a letter from the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) asking for "immediate assistance to ensure the safety of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear facilities in the country."

Grossi said the IAEA had begun consultations on the request.

The letter submitted to IAEA by the Ukraine agency said the staff at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had been kept at the site since Russian military forces took control of it a week ago. The agency said the staff members were facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion,” Grossi said.

He cautioned that the staff must be allowed to rest and rotate schedules “so that their crucial work can be carried out safely and securely.”

Early Friday, Russian forces shelled Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhia, sparking a fire in a building outside the plant, Ukraine’s state emergency service said on Friday. The plant produces about 25% of Ukraine’s power.

Initially, the mayor of the nearby town of Enerhodar said the plant was on fire. But a short time later, the plant director told Ukraine 24 television that the fire had started outside the building perimeter and that security seemed to be restored to the facility, according to Reuters.

Enerhodar, Ukraine
Enerhodar, Ukraine

IAEA Director General Grossi said the event highlights once again why he has repeatedly stressed that any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants must be avoided.

“I remain gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, especially about the country’s nuclear power plants, which must be able to continue operating without any safety or security threats,” he said. “Any accident caused as a result of the military conflict could have extremely serious consequences for people and the environment, in Ukraine and beyond.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of “nuclear terror” after the Zaporizhzhia plant shelling, Agence France-Presse reported.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has been undergoing decommissioning since an accident in 1986 caused a meltdown of one of its nuclear reactors. Significant amounts of nuclear material remain in various facilities at the site in the form of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.

Ukraine also has 15 other operational nuclear reactors at four sites in the country, providing roughly half of its electricity, which SNRIU reported Thursday continue to operate normally.

The IAEA, in a statement, said it is monitoring developments in Ukraine, with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power reactors. The IAEA remains in constant contact with its counterpart and will continue to provide regular updates on the situation in Ukraine.

War-related dangers

Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told VOA the most significant danger at the Chernobyl plant comes from possible damage to the confinement structure due to hostilities.

He said the reactors elsewhere in Ukraine, which do not have confinement structures, are vulnerable to being hit by missiles.

"This is the first time we've had a war between two countries that have large civilian nuclear power complexes. And that, I think, is even a greater risk than Chernobyl that something's going to happen to disrupt the shielding and safety of one of those reactors," Weitz said.

Chary Rangacharyulu, a physics and engineering professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said the Russians may try to use the nuclear plants for political leverage, but he doubts they are "so foolish to destroy those facilities and let out radioactivities into the atmosphere."

"However, if they make mistakes and blow up a facility or two, the harm will not be limited to Ukraine. It will go beyond. Russia and Belarus are the neighboring countries that will be very much affected. Let us hope and pray that the Russian government is not that insane to cause harm to its own people," he said in a written response to questions from VOA.

Wade Allison, a professor of physics and a fellow at Keble College at Oxford University in England, said he saw no threat posed by the Chernobyl situation because "there have been no active nuclear reactors at Chernobyl since 2000. Spent fuel is not a problem."

VOA’s Tatiana Vorozhko contributed to this report.