Normally routine nuclear plant inspections become harrowing in Ukraine war zone

Updated August 31, 2022 11:27 a.m. ET

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have visited some of the world’s most sensitive nuclear facilities, from North Korean reactors to Iranian uranium plants. But everything seems simple compared to what awaits them at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine.

Since March, the factory has been occupied by Russian forces and run by a small team of Ukrainian workers. Upon arrival, inspectors will walk past the doomed hulk of the main administration building, which was pounded by rocket-propelled grenades during the initial invasion. A nearby courtyard houses the charred remains of military tents, razed by a retaliatory Ukrainian drone strike in late July. In recent weeks, shells have pierced the roofs of vital support buildings and wildfires have threatened power lines at the plant.

It’s all set in a nuclear facility – Europe’s largest – which even in peacetime can be daunting, says Lars van Dassen, executive director of the nonprofit Global Institute for Nuclear Security. in Vienna. Van Dassen has visited Zaporizhzhia and says its six massive reactors and sprawling auxiliary buildings make navigating the site difficult.

“It’s very difficult to find your way around if you don’t have a guide,” he said. Add to that the fact that the plant is now on the front line, and “it’s the environment I can’t imagine the IAEA has ever been in before.”

The world’s nuclear watchdog has its work cut out for it

The International Atomic Energy Agency is the world’s nuclear watchdog. In the past, he has been responsible for ensuring that nations do not illegally seek nuclear weapons. Inspectors have detected inconsistencies in North Korea’s plutonium stockpiles and verified that Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges are not producing explosive-grade material.

But the agency is also conducting more routine inspections at nuclear power plants around the world, according to Shirley Johnson, a former agency nuclear inspector who now runs a US-based private consultancy.

While important, “the most boring inspection you can do is a power plant,” Johnson says. Inspectors usually check the books and make sure the reactor’s nuclear fuel and nuclear waste inventory matches what’s on paper. They would also take direct measurements to ensure that the nuclear material is what it is reported to be. Normally “you can do a power reactor in half a day,” says Johnson.

The IAEA has already visited Zaporizhzhia several times on such routine missions, says Kevin Veal, head of international nuclear safeguards at the US National Nuclear Security Administration. “The agency has had a very good grasp of the facility’s activity for more than two decades,” he says, referring to the IAEA.

However, this inspection is far from routine. The inspectors’ visit was delayed for months, until the latest fighting around the plant put enormous diplomatic pressure on Russia, according to Patricia Lewis, director of international security at Chatham House in London.

At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last week, even China said nuclear inspectors should be allowed to visit the nuclear plant. “It was tough,” Lewis says. “Every other country basically said you should let the IAEA in.”

It is difficult to assess the safety of a factory in a war zone

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The Zaporizhzhia mission is also technically more complex than previous missions. In addition to ensuring that the plant’s large stockpiles of nuclear fuel and nuclear waste have not been diverted or altered since Russian forces took over the plant in the spring, inspectors will examine how the reactors and their systems security resist. They’ll likely check things like whether the diesel generators have enough fuel to keep running if the lights go out at the factory, like they did last week. Generators are vital because water must constantly flow through reactor cores to keep nuclear fuel cool, even after the reactors have been shut down.

The mission will also look at security around the plant. Van Dassen says that work would typically include examining the operation of systems such as ID card readers and remote cameras. But Johnson says given the ongoing fighting around the facility, that may be difficult to gauge. “There’s definitely no security right now,” she says.

Perhaps more importantly, the inspectors will talk to Ukrainian workers at the plant. A skeleton crew of Ukrainians ran the power plant, apparently while being harassed and abused by Russian troops. Johnson says it’s important to know how they are doing, but it will also be the hardest part of the inspection.

“It kind of depends on the ability of Ukrainian operators to speak frankly and openly,” she says.

The head of the agency wants to keep a permanent mission there

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA director general who leads the mission in Zaporizhzhia, says he has been assured he will be able to speak with Ukrainian staff. “Of course it’s one of the most important things, and I will do it,” he told reporters during a brief press conference on Wednesday.

Veal of the National Nuclear Security Administration says the information this mission brings back will be key to understanding the situation at the plant. “It’s one thing to have satellite images, it’s another to have people on the ground,” he says.

The inspection will also provide a third-party assessment of the plant, said Johnson, the former nuclear inspector. “The world will get information that you believe is not biased one way or the other,” she says.

Grossi also said he hopes the IAEA will be able to establish a permanent presence at the Zaporizhzhia plant, to ensure the world continues to know exactly what is going on there.

Nuclear security expert van Dassen says keeping inspectors in a war zone would be even more difficult than this brief visit.

But, he adds, putting inspectors at the nuclear plant might be the only thing stopping both sides from firing on it. “If there’s one thing that could possibly make a difference, it would be something like this.”

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