The International Community Must Draw a Line on Zaporizhzhia

Image by Виктор Пятов.

Much has happened since the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) last week. News continues to be sparse, but it has been reported that the plant is now totally shut down. This lowers the risk of a meltdown or explosion

Some power is needed to circulate the water cooling the reactors, even though they are not operating. Usually, four major electrical lines from outside sources plus two backup lines feed energy to the pumps. One by one they have been cut by shelling. Ukrainian sources claim this was done deliberately by Russia, to force a shutdown. A complete shutdown is a necessary step to rerouting the plant output to Russian territory.

For the past few days, one reactor was kept running to power the pumps, meters, and other essential equipment. Now an external line has been repaired and a shutdown was deemed safe.

Two IAEA employees remain at the plant. Their job is to observe and report. The Russian occupiers may well be monitoring and censoring their accounts.

ZNPP is still nominally run by Ukrainian technicians, but most have fled, out of fear for their lives. The artillery bombardment is constant, and the Russians occupiers are abusive. Only a dedicated skeleton crew remains.

According to The Guardian, Putin and Macron spoke recently about safety at the plant. Each side blamed the other for the constant shelling. Putin reportedly called for a ‘non-politicised interaction’ on the matter with the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

Many risks remain. If the newly restored power line is cut again, the pumps would have to rely on backup diesel generators, and only 10 days’ worth of fuel is stored on the grounds. After that, the water cooling the reactor cores would stop circulating, and a meltdown would occur within 24 hours. If the uranium fuel then burned through the concrete containing the reactors, radioactive water would flow into the Dnieper River, on whose banks ZNPP is situated.

This is the major river of Southern Ukraine. It drains into the Black Sea, which in turn empties into the Sea of Marmara in Turkey, and thence into the Mediterranean.

Also, If the shelling continues, a missile could hit a spent fuel pool or cask and cause an explosion. A radioactive cloud would float over Europe and Russia. Zelenskyy says it could be 6 times as bad as the one resulting from the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.

All of this has been clearly reported. We know that the plant is occupied by the Russian military, and that a skeleton crew of Ukrainian technicians remain on the site. A few workers who dared to be interviewed say that some of them has been tortured, and 2 were beaten to death. At least 100 others simply disappeared.

Beyond that, what goes on inside the plant is a mystery. We don’t know how many technicians Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, has moved into ZNPP to replace those that have left. We don’t know who is making decisions. The two IAEA technicians on site are not telling us.

Allegedly, the plant was shut down for safety reasons. It so happens that the shutdown also deprives Ukraine of 20% of its energy. It is a step toward Russia’s goal of switching the power output to Russian- controlled territories such as Crimea, when ZNPP starts up again.

ZNPP sits on the south side of the Dnieper River, which is now the front line of the war. The territory around it is controlled by Russia. The north bank has been newly liberated by Ukraine. The major bridges across the river have been destroyed, and each side is building pontoon bridges, which last about 24 hours before being wrecked by shelling. Ukraine is reclaiming some territory on the southern bank, on either side of ZNPP. However, an attempt to take back the plant directly would have to be done very carefully indeed, so as not to trigger an accident or sabotage.

ZNPP is a major prize for several reasons. 1) It is an important bargaining chip; 2) It gives Russia a feeling of successful conquest and control, while the rest of the invasion is going badly; 3) It can be weaponized and used as a nuclear threat; 4) It is being used as a shield for artillery and ammunition stockpiles, a safe base from which to shell surrounding areas; 5) It generates electricity which can be stolen.

The IAEA and Europe have been calling for a demilitarized safety zone, which would entail the Russians withdrawing from ZNPP. So far, the Russians are refusing. It’s unclear what Putin had in mind by “a non-politicised interaction”.

It is imperative that the plant remain Ukrainian. A terrible precedent has already been set. For the first time, a nuclear plant has been turned into a weapon by a hostile power. Today there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries plus Taiwan. If Russia succeeds in appropriating the energy output from ZNPP, then other countries will be tempted to try it.

The international community must draw a line.