UN experts head to Zaporizhzhia facility after weeks of talks
By Dan Bilefsky
The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday that a support and assistance mission was now on its way and expected to be at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine later this week.
The IAEA had pressed for weeks for a visit to the Zaporizhzhia plant, where shelling has damaged parts of the facility and raised fears of a nuclear meltdown. The plant is controlled by Russian forces but operated by Ukrainian engineers.
Experts with the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog conduct regular monitoring of nuclear sites around the world. And the IAEA has said that at Zaporizhzhia, its team would perform urgent safeguards, assess physical damage to the plant, determine whether the main and backup safety and security systems were functional and evaluate the staff’s working conditions.
Officials from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have called for the creation of a demilitarized zone around the six light-water reactors. Ukraine and Russia have each accused the other of attacking the plant, which is Europe’s largest.
With new shelling in and around the plant on a near-daily basis and an exhausted and stressed team of Ukrainian engineers tasked with keeping it running, the arrival of international inspectors was widely seen as an urgent step to verify the facility’s safe operation.
“Nowhere in the history of this world has a nuclear power plant become a part of a combat zone, so this really has to stop immediately,” Bonnie Denise Jenkins, the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, told reporters in Brussels last week.
Last week, the IAEA’s director general, Rafael M. Grossi, had emphasized that “we can’t afford to lose any more time” before a visit.
But negotiations to allow access for a team of scientists went on for weeks, with Russia reportedly insisting that inspectors travel through Russian territory to access the plant. Ukraine objected to that because it would have underscored Russian control over the facility, which provides 20% of Ukraine’s electricity.
During an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting last week, Ukraine, the United States and their allies accused Russia of peddling lies about who is responsible for the danger at Zaporizhzhia. Russia levied similar charges at them. All sides agreed that experts from the IAEA should visit the plant, a sprawl of cooling towers, nuclear reactors, machine rooms and radioactive waste storage sites.
The plant has come under sporadic shelling since early August, although the extent of the damage remains unclear.
It was temporarily disconnected from the nation’s power grid last week for the first time, Ukrainian officials said, after fighting severed one high-tension electrical line. Operators implemented emergency procedures to cool the reactor cores with pumps powered by diesel generators, but nearly all the Russia-occupied cities of southern Ukraine saw large-scale power outages before the electrical line was repaired.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week that the episode had brought Ukraine perilously close to disaster, making the need for a visit by international inspectors all the more pressing.
“I want to emphasize that the situation remains very risky and dangerous,” Zelenskyy said. “That is why it is so important that the IAEA mission arrives at the plant as soon as possible.”
Fears of a possible radiation leak if the plant is further damaged have prompted Ukrainian officials to start distributing potassium iodide, a drug that can protect against some radiation poisoning, to people living within 35 miles of the plant.