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IAEA warns of ‘nuclear disaster’ from shelling of Zaporizhzhia reactor

Written by Javed Iqbal

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The UN nuclear chief warned of a potential “nuclear disaster” after shelling of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, and once again called on Russia and Ukraine to allow an expert mission access to the facility to help secure it.

The shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine highlights the potential for “catastrophic consequences” from attacks on and near the facility, Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a announcement on Saturday.

“Military action that endangers the safety and security of the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs,” Grossi’s statement said.

After the shelling on Friday, Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the attack. The facility, near the front lines of the battle, has been under Russian control since March, but is still staffed by Ukrainians.

In his nocturnal address On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted the shelling of Zaporizhzhia as another reason why Russia should be recognized as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” which he has repeatedly called for.

Zelensky also argued for sanctions against Russia’s nuclear industry.

“This is purely a matter of safety,” he said. “Whoever creates nuclear threats against other nations is certainly not capable of using nuclear technologies safely.”

In turn, Russia’s Defense Ministry has blamed Ukraine for the attack and stated that protection by Russian-backed forces was the reason the facility was not more extensively damaged. The shelling damaged two power lines and a water main, leaving more than 10,000 residents without water and electricity, the defense ministry statement said.

Russia initially seized the facility after one of its projectiles caused a fire in the facility’s complex, raising concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s four nuclear facilities that have continued in the months since.

“The Ukrainian personnel operating the facility under Russian occupation must be able to perform their important duties without threats or pressure undermining not only their own security, but also the security of the facility itself,” Grossi said in his statement.

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) backed Grossi’s calls to halt attacks on the facility and send a mission there, condemning the shelling in a statement on Saturday.

“It is unjustified that a civilian nuclear facility should be used as a military base or targeted in a military operation,” said the organization’s president, Steven Arndt, and executive director, Craig Piercy.

The shelling on Friday did not damage any of Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors and did not release radioactive material into the environment, according to Grossi, but the plant sustained damage elsewhere.

He added that an IAEA mission to the nuclear plant would allow inspectors to assess it and gather information independently of reports from Ukraine and Russia.

But the situation around Zaporizhzhia is likely to grow more, not less dangerous, according to the British Ministry of Defence, because the heaviest fighting is moving in the direction of the power plant.

The IAEA has been working for several months to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. In April, Gross led a mission to the country’s Chernobyl plant – the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters in 1986 – after Russian-backed forces withdrew from it in March.

He led a follow-up mission to the site in early June with experts assessing its status and providing training in radiation monitoring equipment. A similar mission to Zaporizhzhia, Grossi said, is “crucial” for its security.

“But this will require cooperation, understanding and facilitation from both Ukraine and Russia,” he said, adding that UN Secretary-General António Guterres supported the agency’s plan.

Grossi was in New York on Monday for the Tenth Conference on the Review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In his keynote address, he discussed the IAEA’s “seven pillars” of nuclear safety and security, which includes the physical integrity of facilities, reliable communication with regulatory authorities, and the ability of personnel to work safely.

Those pillars, Grossi said in his statement, had been violated at Zaporizhzhia — during Friday’s shelling and in the months following Russia’s invasion.

“We cannot afford to lose any more time,” he said. “For the sake of protecting the people of Ukraine and elsewhere from a potential nuclear accident, we must all set aside our differences and act now.”

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Javed Iqbal

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