As It Happens·Q&A

Warnings over condition of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia power plant should be taken seriously, says nuclear expert

The international community should take the warnings about the physical condition of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant seriously, said a former official with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Inspectors from UN nuclear agency stationed at plant to monitor conditions

Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA, talks to the media after he lead a team on a visit to the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on Thursday. He said the "physical integrity" of the plant had been "violated" after frequent shelling. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

The international community should take warnings about the physical condition of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant seriously, said a former official with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On Thursday a team of 14 officials from the IAEA visited the nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, following a months-long negotiation. The plant has been held by Russian armed forces since it was captured in March. It is operated by Ukrainian engineers. 

"The military activity and operations are increasing in that part of the country. And this worries me a lot," said IAEA director general Rafael Grossi during a news conference in Vienna on Friday following the visit to the plant.

The team itself was slowed from reaching the site due to shelling.

Two officials from the IAEA will stay on the site to monitor the situation, and provide updates to the agency.

"We need to take his [Grossi's] warnings very seriously," said Tariq Rauf, the former head of verification and security policy at the IAEA, in an interview with As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens.

What stood out to you most from that news conference, in terms of safety and security?

I think we were a little bit reassured, although he did express concern about the continued fighting in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. He also said that although ... the Ukrainian staff were operating under considerable psychological pressure, nonetheless, they were professionals and they were doing their job well.

He was also concerned that not all safety systems at the reactor were operational, but enough were operational to give us some level of comfort, so to speak.

A man opens a car door.
United Nations' vehicles carrying members of the IAEA inspection mission leave the city of Zaporizhzhia on September 1st. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

There are going to be inspectors who are now permanently based at that nuclear plant. Describe what kind of environment you think that they'll be working in.

The director general said that there would be two IAEA staff members having a continuous presence. And I think these will mainly be experts in safety and security in the control room, which the IAEA team visited.

They did not see any soldiers, he said. But nonetheless, the atmosphere was tense since the plant itself and the entire region there is under Russian military occupation. So these two IAEA staff members will be in 24/7 communications with IAEA headquarters, and should they run into any problems or difficulties, they will immediately alert the IAEA here in Vienna.

Are you concerned about their safety? Are they really prepared to be operating in a war zone?

Some people have described these two poor staff members as sort of hostages or human shields, and in one respect, that might be the case. That means that perhaps both sides, or whichever side is attacking the plant, will now stop doing it or at least reduce the intensity of their operations.

But I think it's important that the two IAEA staff members can provide an independent technical assessment as to what is happening at the two operating reactors. Four of the six reactors are not operating, but they still have nuclear fuel onsite. That would cause a radiation accident if hit.

Mr. Grossi has suggested that one of his great concerns is power outages, can you explain why that is such a heavy concern right now?

Yes. So every nuclear power plant needs to have [an] external power supply to run the cooling system — the water that keeps the reactor cool and also the nuclear fuel cool. Should the power be lost, even if the reactor shuts down, there is a lot of residual heat in the nuclear material from the fission reaction.

And therefore reactors have a backup cooling system and then also a backup to the backup, and similarly two backups to the power supply. So he did mention that of the four main power lines coming into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, only one is operational. But there is also a backup power line from a dam and there are also diesel generators on site. So for the time being, the power situation is okay. But nonetheless, with only one main power line, we still have a risk. 

UN vehicles transporting members of IAEA inspection mission drive on a road outside Zaporizhzhia city, after their visit to the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine is accusing the Russians of interfering with the IAEA work ... how worried does the IAEA have to be about maintaining a sense of being an impartial player?

The director general did not make any complaints. And I think the Ukrainian side, first of all, should be thanking the IAEA team for risking their lives to make this mission, rather than criticizing them.

The director general said he will report to the UN Security Council on Tuesday and then we can get a full report as to what he saw and what obstacles or difficulties, if any, he faced during his visit.

What are you going to be hoping to learn in the next few days and weeks ahead?

We're hoping that the intensity of the fighting at least stops. There are also requests by Ukraine, which I think are very reasonable for the reactor site to be demilitarized and eventually returned to Ukrainian control.

Should that not happen, at least military hostilities at the site and its vicinity should cease immediately or as soon as possible.

Do you think there's any realistic chance that's going to happen?

I don't think so, unfortunately.

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. This Q&A has been edited and condensed.


Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with CBC Radio. She helped launch the new CBC Kitchener-Waterloo radio station in 2013 and worked as a producer there for half a decade, reported for CBC Montreal, produced radio documentaries for CBC Radio and covered disinformation for CBC News. She has also reported for the wire service Agence France-Presse.

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