Atom agency still seeking assurances over nuclear plant safety

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that while there have been no new threats to Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant there is no room for complacency as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (pic) made his comments following his visit to the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) as part of the ongoing efforts of the IAEA to help prevent a nuclear accident during the current conflict.

During his fourth visit to the ZNPP in south-eastern Ukraine since the war began almost two years ago, Grossi noted that there had been no shelling at this major facility since the establishment in May last year at the United Nations Security Council of the five concrete principles for the protection of the plant. These principles state, among others, that there should be no attack of any kind from or against the plant, and that the ZNPP should not be used as a storage or a base for heavy weapons or military personnel that could be used for an attack from the plant.

But he warned against any complacency towards the very real dangers that continue to face Europe’s largest nuclear power plant (NPP). Located on the frontline, it came under fire several times in 2022. It has also lost all off-site power eight times – most recently in December – forcing it to temporarily rely on emergency diesel generators to provide the power it needs for reactor cooling and other important nuclear safety and security functions.

“We can see that in the observance of the five basic principles established at the United Nations Security Council, the physical integrity of the plant has been relatively stable, which is a positive development, though we take it with enormous caution,” he said at the site.

Grossi also focused on other nuclear safety and security challenges at the ZNPP, including assessing the plant’s measures in recent months to find an alternative source of cooling water after the destruction in June 2023 of the downstream Kakhovka dam, draining the huge reservoir that had been providing water to the site for decades. Director General Grossi last travelled to the ZNPP just days after the dam collapsed.

To provide a constant supply of water to the sprinkler ponds cooling the site’s six reactors, the plant has drilled 11 wells that are now operating, as witnessed by Director General Grossi this week.

“For now, with all the reactors in shutdown, the plant has sufficient water for its needs. But this is not a sustainable solution, especially if and when it starts producing electricity again,” he said.

Grossi also raised the crucial issue of staffing at the ZNPP, following last week’s announcement by the plant that from 1 February no workers employed by Ukraine’s national operator Energoatom are being allowed at the site. The director general  was told at the site that the current staffing is enough considering the shutdown state of the plant and that further recruitment is ongoing.

“The number of staff had already been significantly reduced from the pre-war level of some 11,500 employees. Even though the six reactor units are in shutdown, the plant still requires sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to conduct both operational tasks and to ensure that equipment important for nuclear safety and security is properly maintained. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in this regard,” he said.

Grossi stressed the importance of the teams of IAEA experts present at the site since September 2022 receiving the access, they need to monitor adherence to the five concrete principles and also to assess the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security that he outlined early in the conflict, something which has not always been the case.

“It is important that they have access and can ask questions. There were situations where there were suggestions that they look but not talk. That is not good,” he said.

Grossi said the visit had confirmed the crucial role of the IAEA’s permanent presence at the site and that its job was not yet done.

“Until the conflict ends without a nuclear accident with radiological consequences, we will not be able to say that our job is complete. We continue and today has been an important part of this effort,” he added.