The risk of an accident at Ukraine’s Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant will “undoubtedly” increase as both Kyiv and Moscow prepare for military offensives in the coming months, warned the chief of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.
“There is a lot of talk about bigger, larger maneuvers and action in the early spring or late winter,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general, told POLITICO, “which makes me think that any increase in bombing and shelling will undoubtedly increase the possibility of a nuclear accident.”
Russian troops occupied the plant, Europe’s largest, in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, although the day-to-day functioning is still done by Ukrainian staff. Enerhodar, the city housing the plant, lies on the banks of the Dnipro River, one side of which is under Russian control while the other is in Ukrainian hands.
Grossi was in Brussels earlier this week to speak to the European Parliament and attend a gathering of EU foreign ministers. He is mounting a new push to create a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant, which has been hit by rockets and artillery shells in past months. Although the attacks have subsided in recent weeks, Grossi said there were “thousands of troops” near the plant.
The agency has called for months for a zone to keep both Ukrainian and Russian troops away from the plant, but progress on the scheme has stalled. Grossi said says there needs to be “political will” from both Kyiv and Moscow for that to change.
“The zone is the only concrete viable initiative in this regard, other than sitting on our hands,” the IAEA chief said, adding that he would visit Russia again in February; he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg in October to press for the zone.
Grossi said there have been “many allegations” of Russian troops mistreating Ukrainian staff at the site, and that the IAEA has “intervened … to facilitate the release” of some people arrested by the Russians.
While Moscow insists that the plant is located on newly acquired Russian soil, Kyiv is wary of any deal that could signal international approval for Russian presence on its territory.
Earlier this month, Petro Kotin, president of Ukraine’s state-run Energoatom nuclear operator, said a U.N. security buffer was not “realistic” and instead called for Ukraine’s forces to take the facility back by force.
But Grossi warned that any attack “puts the installation at great risk.”
He’s pressing for EU foreign ministers to get involved and use their “own channels of communication” with Ukraine and Russia to “pass the message … that avoiding a nuclear accident is a must” and a security zone is needed.
Grossi also addressed the increasingly frequent calls from Russian propagandists and some politicians that Moscow should respond to its battlefield setbacks by unleashing its nuclear weapons.
“I don’t see how a conventional war — no matter how dramatic it is — between a non-nuclear weapon state and a nuclear weapon state could … justify the use of nuclear weapons,” he said.
Louise Guillot contributed reporting.