IAEA warns of ‘catastrophic’ threat from shelling in Ukraine nuclear report

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Tuesday called on both Russian and Ukrainian forces not to engage in any military activity toward or from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russia, he said, must withdraw “all military personnel and equipment” from the facility, and Ukrainian forces must not “move into it.”

Guterres’s appeal to a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the issue came as the International Atomic Energy Agency called for the creation of a “special safety and security zone” in and around the plant. Without placing blame on either side for shelling the facility, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told the council that the attacks were “simply unacceptable.”

“They are playing with fire,” Grossi said, “and something very, very catastrophic could take place.”

The meeting was the third the Security Council has held on the situation at Zaporizhzhia, amid growing international concerns that an accident could cause a nuclear disaster. It came as the IAEA released a report on the findings of a team of agency experts that visited the plant last week after lengthy IAEA negotiations with Russia and Ukraine. The team left two inspectors behind to supervise safety and remain in contact with the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear agency.

In response to the IAEA report, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said his government “welcomes the permanent presence” of the nuclear watchdog to witness and help prevent Ukraine’s “heinous provocations” in attacking the plant. He asserted that the stationing of Russian troops there was “preventing a radiation disaster” and made no mention of withdrawal from the facility, which Russia has occupied since March.

Ukraine has accused Russia of the shelling. In his nightly video address in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “we need to look at the specifics of” the proposed “nuclear safety and security protection zone,” according to excerpts read to the council by Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya.

Zelensky said that Ukraine would “support such demilitarized protection” but that “I believe that the world not only deserves but needs representatives of the IAEA to force Russia to demilitarize and restore full control to Ukraine,” according to Kyslytsya.

During the visit, the IAEA team “closely witnessed shelling” near the site and observed damage to several buildings, including one that houses the solid radioactive waste storage facility. The building containing the plant’s central alarm station was also damaged, the report said.

In one incident in late August, experts learned, shelling caused the radiation monitoring system to go down for about 24 hours. The agency did not ascribe blame for the rocket and mortar fire or damage to the complex, but it urged Russia and Ukraine to “immediately” halt the fighting to avoid any further damage to the plant.

The report “pretty much validates the picture that this plant is under a dire threat from the ongoing, increasing military activity around it and occasionally on it,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Inspectors documented the presence of Russian troops and military equipment at the site, including vehicles positioned around reactor units and concealed inside facility buildings and beneath other structures. And representatives from Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, were also present at the facility — something the report said could interfere with typical decision-making hierarchies.

More than 1,000 Ukrainian workers are keeping the plant running — about 10 percent of its typical workforce. Staffers have said they suffer intimidation and abuse from Russian authorities overseeing the site. According to the IAEA report, Ukrainian workers “are under constant high stress and pressure” that is “not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety.”

Russian forces, it said, had also turned the plant’s crisis control center into its military headquarters, requiring workers to use another area for that purpose. In comments he made last week after leaving the facility, Grossi said that he had asked for — but was refused — permission to speak with Russian military officers at Zaporizhzhia.

The IAEA report also said communication with Ukraine’s atomic energy regulator, Energoatom, has been spotty. On Monday, the plant was again disconnected from Ukraine’s electricity grid to allow workers to extinguish a fire caused by shelling. According to the IAEA, the facility was using just one operational reactor to power safety operations.

Repairs to some of the damaged electrical equipment will “require a long time as the spare parts were tailor-made,” the report said, and the war has interrupted supply chains.

At the Security Council, the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors hurled insults at each other, with the former accusing the latter’s government of sending “saboteurs” who had made several efforts to assault the plant “to create the impression” of Ukrainian military success “to help the Zelensky regime beg for more armaments” from the West. “If successful,” Nebenzya said, Russian troops and the inspectors “would have become the human shield of the saboteurs.”

For his part, Kyslytsya addressed Nebenzya as occupying the “terrorist seat of Russia, in the permanent seat of the Soviet Union” at the council.

The United States and its NATO allies on the council have called for Russia’s withdrawal from the plant and the creation of a demilitarized zone. “All parties are not responsible for this situation,” said Jeffrey DeLaurentis, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Russia is.”

John Hudson in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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