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IAEA chief says talks intensify on creating safety zone around Ukrainian nuclear power plant

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General, at virtual meeting of the IAEA 1542nd Board of Governors meeting on June 15, 2020. (IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog is intensifying his consultations on setting up a protection zone around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine following renewed shelling that struck the plant over the weekend.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), gave no details about the stepped up efforts to create the protection zone, which he has sought for months.

In a news release on November 21, he said the shelling that occurred late on November 19 and early on November 20 was “one of the most serious such incidents at the facility in recent months.”

IAEA inspectors were able to confirm that, despite the severity of the shelling, key equipment remained intact and there were no immediate nuclear safety or security concerns, Grossi said.

Four IAEA nuclear safety experts who are currently staying at the site were briefed by management on the impact of the shelling and then assessed the extent of the damage, he said.

The status of the six reactor units at Zaporizhzhya is stable, the statement said, but it added that the IAEA experts still observed widespread damage across the site.

“This is a major cause of concern as it clearly demonstrates the sheer intensity of the attacks on one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants,” Grossi said.

Grossi said earlier that Ukraine narrowly escaped disaster when the Russian-controlled nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine was targeted.

Ukraine’s energy agency Enerhoatom accused Russian forces of shelling the facility, saying that at least 12 strikes were recorded. Russia’s Defense Ministry on November 20 accused Ukrainian forces of firing on power lines that supply the plant, and on November 21 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s assertion that Kyiv was behind the attacks.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February. The reactors at the Soviet-designed plant have been shut down, but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if power supplies to the plant’s cooling systems are cut off. The plant has been forced to operate on backup generators a number of times since the Russian invasion.

The head of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, Aleksei Likhachev, warned on November 21 that there was a risk of a nuclear accident at the plant and said that he had been engaged in negotiations with the IAEA “all night.”

Rosatom has controlled the facility since Russian President Vladimir Putin in October ordered that the plant be seized and all Ukrainian staff members be transferred to a Russian entity.

In a video address to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Madrid on November 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged members of the Western military alliance to protect Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.

“All our nations are interested in not having any dangerous incidents at our nuclear facilities,” Zelenskiy said. “We all need guaranteed protection from Russian sabotage at nuclear facilities.”

Zelenskiy also repeated his call for NATO nations and other allies to recognize Russia as a terrorist state, saying that its shelling of energy supplies was tantamount “to the use of a weapon of mass destruction.”

resolution adopted by the assembly urges NATO member governments to “state clearly that the Russian state under the current regime is a terrorist one.”