Reactor building at Ukrainian nuclear plant hit during recent attacks

Zaporizhzhya NPP. Photo: IAEA
Zaporizhzhya NPP. Photo: IAEA

Опубликовано: 19/04/2024

Автор: Charles Digges

Перевод: Bellona

Recent attacks on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant "mark the beginning of a new and gravely dangerous front of the war," the UN atomic agency's director general said

The attacks “marked a major escalation of the nuclear safety and security dangers in Ukraine,” Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency said in Vienna, where he spoke at an emergency meeting of the agency’s 35-member Board of Governors, called by both Russia and Ukraine.

The Zaporizhzhia plant, which Russia has occupied since March 2022, has been hit by a series of drone attacks early last week — one of which struck the roof of a reactor building, marking the first time the area of a nuclear power unit had been attacked since the Russian occupation began.

The most recent strikes did not compromise the facility, which is designed to withstand the blow of a crashing commercial airliner, the IAEA said. But the UN watchdog has repeatedly expressed alarm about the plant amid fears of a nuclear catastrophe.

The plant’s six reactors have been shut down for months, but it still needs power and qualified staff to operate crucial cooling systems and other safety features.

Russia has blamed Ukraine for the strikes and announced a criminal investigation, but Ukraine denied responsibility and accused Russia of mounting false-flag attacks on the plant in the past — an accusation it renewed over this past weekend.

The most recent attacks on the plant were the first since November 2022. The Zaporizhzia plant, with six Soviet-era VVER reactors, the largest nuclear power station in Europe, which has now been on the front lines of a grinding military conflict for more than two years.

Ukraine has accused Russia of turning the plant into a military base for occupying troops, knowing Kyiv’s forces would be reluctant to strike it. Nearby residents of Enerhodar — the Soviet-era company town built to house plant workers — have been living in fear of a potential radioactive disaster.

“There should be no attack of any kind from or against the plant, in particular targeting the reactors, spent fuel storage, other critical infrastructure, or personnel,” Grossi said at last week’s emergency meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors.

After the three-and-a-half hour meeting broke up, Russian ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov said it was a “useful meeting” and he “hope(d) that today’s discussion will help the Ukrainian side to stop these dangerous actions”.

Ukraine, on the other hand, denounced a “disinformation campaign” by Moscow, saying in a communique from its permanent mission in Vienna that Russia was simulating attacks to “discredit” Ukraine.

Bellona’s Dmitry Gorchakov underscored that IAEA inspectors — who have been present at the plant on a rotating basis since September 2023 — have several times reported military fire in close proximity to the facility.

“Undoubtedly, a drone attack on station facilities is an alarming sign,” said Gorchakov. “Such actions are unacceptable, no matter who does it or why. At the same time, it is important to understand that the root cause of all military activity at the station and the creation of risks for nuclear safety is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the seizure and occupation of the station.”

He also called “hypocritical” Russia’s agitation to call the emergency meeting of the IAEA, given Moscow’s disregard of four previous resolutions by the agency’s Board of Governors calling for Russian troops to withdraw from the plant and return it to Ukrainian control.  

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin agreed, but added that the IAEA, as a civilian organization, has little authority to assign blame in the circumstances of such attacks. The group of agency observers present at the plant are “without rights and opportunities,” Nikitin said.

“For many reasons, they are not able to objectively assess, let alone investigate, what is happening at the Zaporizhzhia NPP plant — especially where attacks come from,” he added.

As Nikitin and Gorchakov point out in Bellona’s monthly nuclear digest — which pulls together and analyses events throughout the atomic energy industry — the presence of IAEA experts at the plant alongside Russian soldiers and technicians from Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, creates a “cat and mouse” game between the two factions, the latter often denying the former access to critical areas at the plant.

“If these games continue, this may only mean one thing – there is something to hide, which draws concern from all observers,” Nikitin noted in February’s digest.

Nonetheless, as the sides trade accusations about the recent attacks, Nikitin says that Russia would benefit more from damages inflicted on the plant than would Ukraine.

“Everything is being done to classify Ukraine as a ‘terrorist country,” he said. “And this information is directed not at the indigenous Russian people…but at the international community. They need international noise.”

Meanwhile, as Nikitin and Gorchakov noted in their digest, Russia’s continued occupation of the Zaporizhzhia plant has turned it into something of an albatross around the neck of Rosatom, which is already responsible for running the 11 nuclear power plants within Russia itself.

“I get the impression that Russia does not understand what to do with Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. It is very difficult to incorporate it,” he said. “Energodar and the Zaporizhzhia plant itself are alien to Russia and there is practically no option for Russia to make it its own without problems. This will be a very long and difficult story with an unclear end.”