VIENNA, Austria, March 27, 2023 (ENS) – International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Monday to plan protection for the embattled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, as the Kremlin made plans to move nuclear weapons closer by stationing them in neighboring Belarus.
On March 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Rossiya-1 TV channel that a depot to store tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus would be completed by July of this year.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Monday responded to criticism from the United States and Europe on Russia’s plans to move the nuclear weapons into Belarus, saying Russia would continue with its nuclear plans.
The government of Ukraine is demanding that the United Nations Security Council convene an emergency meeting over this issue.
It was a different but just as pressing a nuclear matter that occupied the two leaders today.
President Zelensky and Director General Grossi met at the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant in central Ukraine. They surveyed the consequences of Russian missile strikes on this critical infrastructure facility; its buildings and energy equipment lay in ruins.
They considered whether the same thing could happen to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Both Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of repeatedly shelling the six-reactor nuclear power plant. The IAEA has warned that damage to the plant could lead to a nuclear disaster, even though it has been placed in a state called “cold shutdown” in the interest of safety.
They had what Grossi called a “rich exchange” on protecting the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and its staff.
“Your role in ensuring Ukraine’s energy security is extremely important today,” President Zelensky emphasized.
“I reiterated the full support of the IAEA to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities,” the IAEA chief said.
The nuclear plant, the largest in Europe, is currently controlled by the Russian military, with a virtually all-Ukrainian crew operating facility as fighting continues around it.
Last autumn, Russian officials announced plans to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from Ukraine’s power grid and connect it to the Russian grid and the Crimea peninsula by September 1.
“These plans failed, in part because of the falling of high-voltage lines and the explosion of a substation in Crimea,” according to Adrian Prokip, Director, Energy Program, Ukrainian Institute for the Future at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
On September 11, after being reconnected to Ukraine’s grid, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant stopped operations and was switched to a “cold shutdown mode” for safety reasons. This, however, does not mean an absence of risk of a nuclear accident.
On September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Moscow had annexed the Zaporizhzhia region. There have been power outages, and so far they have been handled by sourcing electricity from a coal-fired thermal power station and diesel generators.
But if the final remaining power line from the national grid is damaged, on-site diesel generators cannot cool nuclear fuel in each of the plant’s six reactors in the long term. If the backup generators fail, the loss of coolant could trigger a nuclear fuel meltdown, releasing vast amounts of radioactive material. As power outages, shelling, and even kidnappings of Ukrainian plant operators continue, that risk is growing.
In his meeting with the IEA chief Grossi today, President Zelensky raised as an issue, “the constant pressure that the staff of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is facing due to the Russian occupiers.”
He also focused on the “forcible passportization of Ukrainian workers by the Russian occupation forces,” as well as their “non-compliance with safety rules” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and “illegal interference in the technological process of the plant’s operation.”
“I remain determined to continue doing everything in my power to help reduce the risk of a nuclear accident during the tragic war in Ukraine. Despite our presence at the site for seven months now, the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is still precarious,” Grossi promised.
Permanent IAEA Team Oversees Zaporizhzhia
It was the second time Director General Grossi has crossed the frontline in order to reach the big nuclear power plant on the Ukraine-Crimea border and the first since he established a permanent presence of IAEA experts at Zaporizhzhia on September 1, 2022.
On today’s visit, he was accompanied by a new group of IAEA experts, the seventh such team at the site since the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) was established as a permanent presence there.
Grossi says he wanted to see for himself how the situation has evolved since ISAMZ started its oversight last September and to talk to those operating the facility “in these unprecedented and very difficult circumstances.”
“I remain determined to continue doing everything in my power to help reduce the risk of a nuclear accident during the tragic war in Ukraine,” the director general said.
“Despite our presence at the site for seven months now, the situation at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is still precarious. The nuclear safety and security dangers are all too obvious, as is the necessity to act now to prevent an accident with potential radiological consequences to the health and the environment for people in Ukraine and beyond. I’m therefore continuing to work on a proposal to protect the plant,” Grossi explained.
Grossi said his travel to Ukraine was also aimed at ensuring that the regular rotation of IAEA experts to and from the Zaporizhzhia site is maintained and improved, following the very challenging circumstances faced by the experts during the previous rotation in February which had been delayed by almost a month.
President Zelensky emphasized the importance to the nuclear security of Ukraine and the entire region of “ensuring the permanent presence of IAEA representatives at the temporarily occupied Zaporizhzhia NPP.”
Zelensky expressed his appreciation for “Grossi’s willingness to personally lead a rotating group of experts at the ZNPP.”
At the same time, the president underscored the primary importance of liberating the station from the occupiers and restoring Ukraine’s full control over the facility.
Zelensky warned, “Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the ZNPP and adjacent territories, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure.”
Ukraine Wants Small Modular Nuclear Reactors for Rebuilding
Large nuclear power plants such as Zaporizhzhia are not what the Zelensky administration envisions for the rebuilding of Ukraine, but nuclear energy is still very much in the picture.
In London on March 20, officials of Ukraine’s Energoatom and the UK’s Rolls-Royce SMR signed an agreement that allows the companies to work together to explore opportunities to deploy Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactors, SMRs, in Ukraine as the country begins to rebuild.
The agreement was signed by the President of Energoatom Petro Kotin and the Head of Customer Engagement of Rolls-Royce SMR Sophie McFarlane-Smith.
The document states Rolls-Royce SMR’s commitment to support the rebuild of Ukraine with its factory-built Small Modular Reactor power plant. Each SMR is capable of generating enough carbon-free electricity to power a million homes for more than 60 years.
Rolls-Royce SMR CEO Tom Samson commented that the Government of the United Kingdom supports Ukraine and its people. “Through Britain’s sovereign nuclear technology, we can potentially help the people of Ukraine rebuild rapidly and restore their energy security and their independence,” he said.
Energoatom President Kotin said Ukraine is continuing its course towards energy independence, which is impossible to imagine without advanced nuclear technologies.
“The cooperation between Energoatom and Rolls-Royce SMR has reached a new level,” Kotin said. “Today we signed an agreement that allows Ukraine not only to start an efficient post-war recovery of the energy infrastructure, but also to become one of the first countries in the world to attract promising technologies of small modular reactors for this purpose.”
Featured image: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right center in black shirt, hosts Rafael Grossi, left center in blue jacket, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA during a working trip of the president to the Zaporizhzhia and Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. March 27, 2023 (Photo courtesy Office of President Zelensky)