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Ukraine plant must be seized from Russia, nuclear chief says

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe's largest nuclear power station and currently held by Russian occupying forces, is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022, from Prydniprovske in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine. Kyiv’s top nuclear official said it must be taken back by force from Russia. (Carl Court/Getty Images/TNS)

Ukraine must seize Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant back from Russia by force as efforts to establish a security zone around it evaporate, Kyiv’s top nuclear official said.

Petro Kotin, the president of Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom, cast doubt on calls by the International Atomic Energy Agency for Ukrainian and Russian authorities to impose a security perimeter around the Zaporizhzhia plant in southern Ukraine. The six reactors, captured by Russian forces in the first week of the Feb. 24 invasion, have been subject to artillery and missile attacks, raising the risk of a nuclear emergency.

“We do not think it is realistic,” Kotin said in an interview late Tuesday of the IAEA’s effort to establish a security buffer. “There is a new year and there is no creation of this zone.”

Instead, Kotin says the more likely scenario is the return of what he calls the country’s “atomic pearl” to Ukrainian control by the military.

“Our best hope is with the Ukrainian armed forces,” Kotin, who oversees Ukraine’s 15 state-owned reactors, said via video link. If Kyiv’s forces are able to break through Russian lines and capture the southern city of Melitopol, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south of the facility, “the only option will be for the occupiers to leave the plant,” he said.

The comments signal that one of the war’s most dangerous flash-points will remain on a short fuse as the conflict approaches its second year. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi last month expressed optimism that a deal to set up a security zone was getting closer.

The nuclear risk raised by the Kremlin’s occupation should also be kept in mind by countries still doing billions of dollars worth of nuclear business with Russia, said Kotin, adding that Ukraine has several year’s worth of fuel inventory for its reactors.

“This is one of the legs this war stands on,” he said. “We need to stop this money they are receiving from financing the war.”

Russia’s state-owned nuclear giant Rosatom has continued playing an outsized role in international nuclear markets. Its subsidiaries still supply more than a fifth of the enriched uranium used in the U.S. and millions of Europeans still need its nuclear fuel to generate electricity. Rosatom continues work on projects from Bangladesh to Egypt and Turkey.

“There should be sanctions against Rosatom until this war is finished,” Kotin said. “Their international activities should be on hold until they end the illegal capture of civilian facilities.”

Rosatom claimed full ownership over Zaporizhzhia in October, forcing workers to reapply with Russia’s state-owned company to keep their jobs. The chairman of its supervisory board, Sergei Kiriyenko, who’s also the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, visited the plant late last month in a move condemned by Kyiv’s government.

The Ukrainian government’s effort to persuade other nations to cut ties with Russia’s atomic industry won the backing of Holtec International Corp., the closely-held U.S. nuclear supplier working with Kyiv’s government.

Russia’s occupation of Zaporizhzhia doesn’t just risk a nuclear accident, it also threatens to undermine atomic power as a clean source of energy around the globe, Holtec Chief Executive Officer Kris Singh wrote in a letter shared with Bloomberg News Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “has devised and normalized a new horrendous instrument of war that a future rogue state like his own would feel uninhibited to employ against its neighbor it does not like,” Singh wrote. “Construction of new clean energy-producing nuclear plants on whom the future of de-carbonization of our planet’s environment substantially rests will be imperiled.”


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