International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said he was ready to visit Chernobyl to ensure commitment to safety and security of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants from the parties to the conflict in the country.
He reiterated this commitment in a statement to the Board of Governors on March 7, expressing his deep concern over recent events.
Last week, a military projectile hit a building at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, causing a fire, but no radiation. Russian forces also took control of all facilities in the exclusion zone, and shelling was reported in the area of the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, a nuclear research facility.
“Russian forces now control the management of the [Zaporozhye] plant and approval of technical decisions made by Ukrainian operators. This is not a safe way to operate a nuclear power plant. It is also not safe or sustainable that internal and external communications have been disrupted and cut off, as the Ukrainian operator and regulator reported to us. I am deeply concerned about the turn of events,” Grossi said in his statement today.
“We must avoid a nuclear accident in Ukraine. Let’s not hide behind ‘all’ or ‘nothing’ solutions,” he said, adding that he was ready to go where it takes to get the deal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron that he was open to a meeting on the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. In response to Grossi’s suggestion of a trilateral meeting (IAEA, Ukraine and Russia) in the Chernobyl zone, he noted that “could be useful” but suggested that it would be better to hold the meeting “by videoconference or in a third country,” RT reported on March 6.
Update on the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine
In the latest update on the situation yesterday, March 6, Grossi said that Ukraine informed the IAEA that although regular personnel continue to operate the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, “the management of the plant is now under the orders of the commander of the Russian forces which took control of the site last week.” Ukraine also said that any action by the management of the plant – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactors – now requires the prior approval of the Russian commander.
Grossi expressed concern that this contravenes one of the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security: operating personnel must be able to perform their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions without undue pressure.
He said Ukraine also reported that Russian forces at the site had shut down some mobile and internet networks so that reliable information from the site could not be obtained through normal communication channels.
Ukraine’s nuclear regulator told the IAEA that it began having major communication problems with personnel operating the Zaporozhye plant – phone lines, as well as emails and faxes, were not working more. Mobile phone communication was still possible, but with poor quality. This contravenes another of the pillars: “There must be reliable communications with the regulator and others.”
“I am extremely concerned about these developments… In order to be able to operate the plant safely, management and personnel must be allowed to carry out their vital duties under stable conditions without undue outside interference or pressure,” he said. Grossi said. “The deterioration of the situation regarding vital communications between the regulator and the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is also a source of deep concern, especially during an armed conflict that can jeopardize the country’s nuclear facilities at any time. Reliable communications between the regulatory body and the operator are an essential element of overall nuclear safety and security.
However, despite communication problems, the regulator was able to provide updated information on the operating status of the Zaporozhye power plant and confirm that radiation levels there remained normal. Of the six reactors, unit 1 is in planned maintenance until mid-2022, unit 2 is operating at full capacity, unit 3 is in a cold shutdown state, unit 4 is operating at near full capacity, unit 5 is cooling down to standby cooling and unit 6 is in cold shutdown.
Grossi noted a positive development, namely that the plant’s operational teams now rotated in three shifts. But said there were issues with food availability and supply, which was negatively impacting staff morale, according to the regulator.
Separately, the Ukrainian nuclear regulator (SNRIU) reported that at 4:06 p.m. on March 6, the 750 kV high-voltage line was damaged in Vasylivka, Zaporizhia region, during heavy fighting.
Regulator reports communication difficulties with nuclear facilities
The regulator also reported that it was having problems communicating with staff at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which was only possible with emails. At the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, staff of more than 200 technicians and guards have still not been able to shoot since February 23, he said.
Grossi has repeatedly stressed the importance of operating personnel being able to rest to perform their jobs safely. “I call on those who effectively control the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to immediately allow the rotation of personnel there for safety and security reasons,” he said.
In another development, communications were lost with all businesses and institutions in the port city of Mariupol that use category 1-3 radiation sources and there was no information on their status, the regulator said. These radioactive materials can cause serious harm to people if not secured and managed properly.