International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Rafael Grossi warned on Tuesday that the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has grown “completely out of control” since Russian troops seized the facility in March.
“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated,” Grossi warned. “You have a catalog of things that should never be happening in any nuclear facility.”
Zaporizhzhia is the largest operational nuclear power plant in Europe. Located in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Enerhodar, the plant was seized by Russian forces on March 3, in a battle that set a nearby training facility on fire.
The catalog of hair-raising misbehaviors mentioned by Grossi is long indeed. For one thing, the power plant is still up and running, under what the IAEA chief described as a “paradoxical situation”: Russia controls Zaporizhzhia, but its original Ukrainian crew is still handling operations, and the two groups are not cooperating smoothly.
Grossi said his agency had only “faulty” and “patchy” communications with the Ukrainian staff and could not guarantee they are receiving all the supplies they need.
Furthermore, combat remains ongoing around the nuclear plant, including exchanges of artillery fire that have come perilously close to the plant’s six reactors. Ukrainian and U.S. officials accuse Russia of using the facility as a base for attacking Ukrainian forces, apparently confident the Ukrainians would not dare to return fire at a nuclear power plant.
“There are credible reports, including in the media today, that Russia is using this plant as the equivalent of a human shield, but a nuclear shield in the sense that it’s firing on Ukrainians from around the plant and of course, the Ukrainians cannot and will not fire back lest there be a terrible accident involving a nuclear plant,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken charged on Monday.
The Russians, in turn, accuse Ukraine of attacking the plant deliberately with American-supplied weapons while Russian troops valiantly protect it. Grossi complained that both Russia and Ukraine have been reluctant to let the IAEA visit the site.
“I have been insisting from day one that we have to be able to go there to perform this safety and security evaluation, to do the repairs and to assist as we already did in Chernobyl,” he said, alluding to an excellent reason for not trusting Russians to manage a dodgy nuclear plant in a war zone.
“The IAEA needs to go to Zaporizhzhia, as it did to Chernobyl, to ascertain the facts of what is actually happening there, to carry out repairs and inspections, to prevent a nuclear accident from happening,” Grossi said.
“The IAEA, by its presence, will be a deterrent to any act of violence against this nuclear power plant. So I’m pleading as an international civil servant, as the head of an international organization, I’m pleading to both sides to let this mission proceed,” he said.
More artillery fire was reported on Thursday in Nikopol, located across the Dnipro River from Zaporizhzhia. Russian rockets struck fifty residential buildings and brought down power lines, leaving Nikopol without electricity.