The U.N. nuclear chief warned that Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine “is completely out of control” and issued an urgent plea to Russia and Ukraine to quickly allow experts to visit the sprawling complex to stabilize the situation and avoid a nuclear accident.
In an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, Rafael Grossi, the director general of The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the situation at Zaporizhzhia in Enerhodar’s southeast city is becoming more dangerous every day. This plant was seized by Russian troops in March after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” at the plant, he said. “What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely grave and dangerous.”
Grossi cited many violations of the plant’s safety, adding that it is “in a place where active war is ongoing,” near Russian-controlled territory.
The physical integrity of the plant hasn’t been respected, he said, citing shelling at the beginning of the war when it was taken over and continuing information from Ukraine and Russia accusing each other of attacks at Zaporizhzhia.
There is “a paradoxical situation” in which the plant is controlled by Russia, but its Ukrainian staff continues to run its nuclear operations, leading to inevitable moments of friction and alleged violence, he said. While the IAEA has some contacts with staff, they are “faulty” and “patchy,” he said.
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Grossi said the supply chain of equipment and spare parts has been interrupted, “so we are not sure the plant is getting all it needs.” The IAEA also needs to perform very important inspections to ensure that nuclear material is being safeguarded, “and there is a lot of nuclear material there to be inspected,” he said.
“When you put this together, you have a catalog of things that should never be happening in any nuclear facility,” Grossi said. “And this is why 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.”
The Russian capture of Zaporizhzhia renewed fears that the largest of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors could be damaged, setting off another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital Kyiv.
After the invasion, Russian forces took control of the site that was heavily contaminated. However, they handed it back to the Ukrainians towards the end march. Grossi visited Chernobyl on April 27 and tweeted that the level of safety was “like a `red light’ blinking.” But he said Tuesday that the IAEA set up “an assistance mission” at Chernobyl at that time “that has been very, very successful so far.”
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, and “to prevent a nuclear accident from happening,” Grossi said.
According to IAEA Chief, he needs protection in order to reach the plant. He also requested the immediate cooperation from Russia and Ukraine.
Each side wants this international mission to go from different sites, which is understandable in light of territorial integrity and political considerations, he said, but there’s something more urgent and that is getting the IAEA team to Zaporizhzhia.
“The IAEA, by its presence, will be a deterrent to any act of violence against this nuclear power plant,” Grossi said. “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.”
Press briefing by Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General IAEA at U.N. headquarters Grassi discussed the dangers of Ukrainian military forces occupying nuclear facilities.
Lev Radin—Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Grossi was in New York to deliver a keynote speech at Monday’s opening of the long-delayed high-level meeting to review the landmark 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually achieving a nuclear-free world.
In an interview with the IAEA Chief, he also discussed efforts to revive 2015’s nuclear accord between Iran and major countries that Trump Administration abandoned in 2018, and which the Biden administration is working to renew.
Grossi said there is “an ongoing effort to try to go for yet another meeting or round to explore possibilities to come to an agreement.” He said he heard the meeting “could be soon.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the NPT review conference on Monday that Iran “has either been unwilling or unable” to accept a deal to return to the 2015 agreement aimed at reining in its nuclear program.
Grossi said “there are important differences among the negotiating parties” and important verification issues related to past activities that Iran needs to address. “It’s not impossible, it’s complex,” he said.
The JCPOA is a nuclear deal. He stated that some IAEA inspections may be suspended if it’s not renewed. But the JCPOA provides for additional transparency and inspections “which I deem as extremely important, very necessary, because of the breadth and depth of the nuclear program in Iran,” he said.
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Grossi stressed that Iran must cooperate with IAEA to answer its questions and allow its inspectors access to any place they may need. This is vital for building trust and confidence. “Promises and good words will not do,” he said.
On another issue, Grossi said last September’s deal in which the United States and Britain will provide Australia with nuclear reactors to power its submarines requires an agreement with the IAEA to ensure that the amount of nuclear material in the vessel when it leaves port is there when it returns.
He said Australia hasn’t decided what type of vessel it will be getting, so while there have been preparatory talks, substantive talks can’t begin.
Because it’s a military vessel, Grossi said, “there are lots of confidential and protection of information measures that need to be embedded into any such agreement, so it’s very complex technologically.”
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