“Untenable.” That’s how Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last week described the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), which Russia seized in March. He said that every day “the independent work and assessments of Ukraine’s regulator are undermined,” the “risk of an accident or a security breach increases.” Grossi asserted he wants to send an IAEA mission to the ZNPP, which is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. In a twist, however, Ukraine’s atomic energy regulators, presumably at the direction of Kyiv, have rejected Grossi’s request.
Ukraine believes an IAEA visit to the ZNPP would legitimize Russia’s control of the complex. Grossi has rejected that characterization, emphasizing that “it is absolutely incorrect. When I go there, I will be going there under the same agreement that Ukraine passed with the IAEA, not the Russian Federation.” President Joe Biden urgently needs to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to let the IAEA in to ensure the ZNPP is safe and secure.
The ZNPP, located in east Ukraine, is a facility with six light water reactors, and it produced up to one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity production before the war. To gain control of it, Russia shelled the area with missiles, sparking a widely reported fire. The missile attack spurred fears that Moscow could further damage the facility and cause a nuclear radiological incident that could harm Ukrainian civilians and neighboring countries.
Ukrainian authorities brought the fire under control, but Russia installed officials from its atomic energy agency, Rosatom, to oversee day-to-day work of Ukrainian personnel. The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine warned in a statement that life at Zaporizhzhia has become intolerable under Moscow’s direction: Russia’s military and representatives of Russia’s Rosatom and its subsidiary Rosenergoatom “constantly terrorize and directly threaten the lives of the plant personnel.”
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that Russian military officers have been interrogating ZNPP employees to assess their loyalties to Moscow and reprimanding “workers who speak in Ukrainian rather than Russian and screening their cellphones for evidence of allegiance to Kyiv.” The Russians have also abducted, tortured, or shot workers. Russian officials at the plant have told workers that they intend to connect the ZNPP to Russia’s electricity grid, which would be costly and take years to accomplish, reinforcing Kyiv’s concerns that Moscow is preparing for long-term control of the facility.
Russia has not publicly opposed an IAEA visit. Grossi claimed in a June 6 statement to the IAEA Board of Governors that Ukraine had requested an IAEA mission to the plant and that the agency was ready to go. The day after Grossi’s statement, however, Ukraine’s atomic agency, Energoatom, wrote in a Telegram post that it had not invited the IAEA to visit. “We consider this message from the head of the IAEA as another attempt to get to the (power plant) by any means in order to legitimise the presence of occupiers there and essentially condone their actions,” the post stated.
In March, Grossi said that seven pillars of nuclear plant safety and security were at risk at the ZNPP. Those pillars include: maintenance of physical integrity; functional safety and security systems and equipment; freedom of operating staff to fulfill their safety and security duties and without undue pressure; a secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites; uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the site; effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems backed by emergency preparedness and response measures; and reliable communication with regulators and others. In his June 6 statement to the IAEA board, Grossi declared that five of seven pillars had been compromised. “This is why IAEA safety and security experts must go,” he said.
Moreover, the ZNPP stopped transmitting safeguards information to the IAEA on May 30, meaning the agency could not ascertain whether there had been theft or loss of nuclear material. “The Ukrainian regulator has informed us they have lost control of the nuclear material,” Grossi told the board.
The IAEA said in a June 12 statement that the ZNPP’s Ukrainian personnel and the agency had together restored remote transmission of safeguards data and that the agency was downloading images for analysis from surveillance cameras.
Grossi yesterday reported that the IAEA had again lost its safeguards connection with the ZNPP: “The fact that our remote safeguards data transmission is down again—for the second time in the past month—only adds to the urgency to dispatch this mission.” He previously warned that inspectors’ activities could not be done remotely and if they are not soon dispatched to the ZNPP “the implementation of safeguards in Ukraine will be compromised.”
President Biden is in a difficult spot: He is focused on fortifying Zelenskyy’s fighting forces against Russia, but Putin’s control of the ZNPP could lead to a safeguards or safety crisis in Ukraine. Biden should urge Ukraine to approve an IAEA visit. He should also insist that Russia stop its intimidation and violence against ZNPP workers and return the plant to Ukraine.
At the same time, the Biden administration should ensure that the IAEA sticks to a clear public line that the agency is there to assist Kyiv. The disruption of the remote safeguards data is a troubling sign reinforcing the urgency of the situation.
At the IAEA’s June board meeting, Grossi did not conceal his obvious frustration: “This mission is going to take place, sooner or later. And better, sooner.” He continued, “If this agency doesn’t care when we have the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe disconnected from the safeguards systems, then we better do something else.”
It goes without saying that Russia must end its unlawful aggression against Ukraine. Until then, Biden must urge Kyiv to let in the IAEA. Ensuring the safety and security of the plant and its nuclear material does not legitimize Putin’s unprovoked war.
Anthony Ruggiero is senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as National Security Council senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Andrea Stricker is the deputy director of the program. Follow Andrea and Anthony on Twitter @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.