Image of nuclear reactor

UN begins nuclear safety consultations with Russia and Ukraine

Image credit: Dreamstime

The United Nations has confirmed that both Russia and Ukraine "appear to be interested" in establishing a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Monday that he has started consultations with both Ukraine and Russia to protect the area around Europe's largest nuclear power plant, despite the conflict between the two nations. 

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency made his proposal last week after leading a team of inspectors to the nuclear plant - Europe’s biggest, having six reactors - but gave few details at the time.

“What we need here really is Ukraine and Russia to agree on a very simple principle of not attacking, or not shelling, at the plant,” Grossi told reporters at the agency’s Vienna headquarters.

Last week, the plant was knocked off Ukraine’s electricity grid after a fire caused by Russian shelling brought down its last transmission line, according to the facility’s operator. Russia, however, blamed Ukraine for the shelling; the IAEA has not assigned blame for the operation. 

The plant has been occupied by Russian forces but operated by its Ukrainian employees since the early days of the war.

Map detailing the location of the Zaporizhzhia Ukraine nuclear plant

Map detailing the location of the Zaporizhzhia Ukraine nuclear plant / PA Graphics

Image credit: PA Graphics

Grossi said of the two sides that he has “seen signs that they are interested in this agreement”.

Pressed on whether his proposal includes demilitarisation, Grossi added: “Basically, it’s a commitment that no military action will include or will imply aiming at the plant or a radius that could be affecting its normal operation.”

He added that technical details are being explored, including the radius to which any accord would apply and how IAEA experts would work.

Earlier this month, a team of six UN inspectors travelled through the war zone to asses the state of the nuclear power plant and report on the steps required to avert a potential disaster at the Ukrainian site. Two IAEA experts remain at the plant after the rest of Grossi’s team returned home.

“What I see is two sides that are engaging with us, but that are asking questions, lots of questions,” he added. “We try to keep it simple, we try to keep it practical, because we need it as soon as possible.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant was reconnected to Ukraine’s electricity grid at the weekend, allowing engineers to shut down its last operational reactor in an attempt to avoid disaster as fighting rages in the area.

It operated in “island mode” for several days, generating electricity for crucial cooling systems from its only remaining operational reactor. That is considered an unstable way of operating a nuclear plant.

Over the past few months, gas supplies from Russia have declined in what a leaked European Commission draft described as a “deliberate attempt to use energy as a political weapon.” The situation is currently driving an increase in energy prices and raising concerns about energy supplies for winter.

In May this year, the EU announced its intention to effectively cut 90 per cent of oil imports from Russia by the end of the year, in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the measure has resulted in rising oil and gas prices across the bloc, which have led EU officials to request reductions in nations’ electricity use by as much as 15 per cent. 

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