The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) mission to assess the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporyjia nuclear plant, occupied in March by Russia during the invasion of its neighbor, said that the fighting in its region violated “the physical integrity” of the site and that it will be necessary to retain technicians from the agency for further investigation.
“I worry, and I will continue to worry about the plant until we have a more stable situation, one that is more predictable. It is obvious that the plant and its physical integrity were violated several times by chance and by deliberation”, said this Thursday (1st) the Argentine Rafael Grossi, director general of the agency linked to the UN.
He led a group of 14 people who, after much negotiation, carried out an on-site inspection. The convoy of nine UN vehicles had left Kiev the day before, and faced the risk of passing through areas where Russians and Ukrainians are attacking each other to reach Zaporijia.
The plant is on the edge of the area occupied by the Russians in the homonymous region, which does not include its capital, also called by the same name. In recent weeks, fighting has intensified in the region, with both sides accusing the other of hitting the plant’s grounds.
The Russians claimed to have shot down a Kiev military drone in the area, which landed on the roof of a building in the complex. The Ukrainians, for their part, claim that Moscow uses the plant as a shield to fire at their positions.
“The IAEA will remain in Zaporijia,” Grossi said in a video posted on Twitter. “I think in those few hours we were able to get a lot of information. I saw the main things I needed to see and the explanations were very clear,” he later told reporters at a Ukrainian military checkpoint.
Diplomatically, Grossi did not suggest which side the physical breach of the plant came from. What is known is that since the beginning of the war it only had 2 of its 6 reactors working, and one of them was shut down this Thursday by what Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom called “terrorist activity” by the Russians.
State-owned technicians continue to operate the plant under the supervision of Russian military and experts. It began operating in the 1980s, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, as was Russia – in 1986, one of the worst nuclear accidents in history took place in Chernobyl, in the north of the country.
In addition to the fear that a reactor or its cooling systems will be hit, there is danger all around, in the form of various radioactive waste dumps. If one of them is bombed, there is a risk of large-scale contamination.
In Zaporijia, the city still in Kiev’s hands, iodine pills were distributed, a substance that helps to delay the absorption of radioactivity by the thyroid. The same happened in neighboring countries such as Romania, echoing the panic that set in Europe when the cloud from the explosion of a reactor in Chernobyl spread across the continent.
Grossi left the plant, but part of his team stayed behind. In principle, this group of five people must stay until Saturday (3). The Argentine is expected to return to Kiev and continue negotiations for what he called a “continued presence” there.
Ukrainians want more. With the support of the United States, they are calling for the complete demilitarization of the plant’s region, which the Russians obviously refuse because they do not want to lose control of the source of a fifth of the energy consumed in the country they invaded. It is a very valuable bargaining chip, including for eventual ceasefire talks, which are now unfathomable.
By giving in to the IAEA, however, Moscow wanted to convey an image of responsibility and cooperation. What remains to be seen now is the degree of autonomy of the technicians’ investigation, which Grossi had said anyway to determine risks and not assign blame.
“We did a first assessment. We saw the dedicated work of the staff and management. Despite the very difficult circumstances, they continue to work as a professional,” said Grossi, who, like his team, wore a bulletproof vest on the way to and from but not at the plant.