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'We have lost control altogether': UN warns of possible nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine

The UN atomic energy chief warned that Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine is "completely out of control" and urged Russia and Ukraine to allow experts to visit the facility as soon as possible to stabilize the situation and avoid a nuclear accident. AP.

Photo: IStock

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Associated Press on Aug. 2 that the situation at the Zaporizhia plant in the southeastern city of Energodar, which Russian troops captured in early March, is becoming more dangerous every day.

“All the principles of nuclear safety were violated at the plant,” he said. “A very serious, extremely serious and dangerous business is at stake.”

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Grossi cited numerous security breaches at the plant, adding that it was "in a place where there is an active war" close to Russian-occupied territory.

The plant's physical integrity is not being respected, he said, citing shelling at the start of the war when the plant was overrun and persistent reports from Ukraine and Russia accusing each other of attacks on Zaporozhye.

There is a “paradoxical situation,” he said, where the plant is controlled by Russia but its Ukrainian personnel continue to direct its nuclear operations, leading to inevitable moments of friction and alleged violence. While the IAEA has some contacts with staff, they are "imperfect" and "not homogeneous," he said.

Grossi said the supply chain for equipment and spare parts had been interrupted, "so we're not sure the plant is getting everything it needs." The IAEA also needs to conduct very important inspections to ensure that nuclear material is protected, "and there's a lot of nuclear material out there that needs to be inspected," he said.

“When you put it together, you have a list of things that should never happen in any nuclear facility,” Grossi said. “And that’s why I insisted from day one that we could go there to do this safety and security assessment, make repairs and provide assistance, as we already did in Chernobyl.”

Russia's takeover of Zaporozhye has renewed fears that the largest of Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors could be damaged, triggering another emergency similar to the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world's largest nuclear disaster, which occurred about 110 kilometers north of Kyiv.

Russian troops occupied the heavily polluted area shortly after the invasion, but returned control to the Ukrainians in late March. Grossi visited Chernobyl on April 27 and tweeted that the security level was "like a flashing red light". But on August 2, he said that at the time, the IAEA had set up an "assistance mission" in Chernobyl, "which has been very, very successful so far."

The IAEA needs to go to Zaporozhye, as it did at Chernobyl, to find out the facts of what is really going on there, to carry out repairs and inspections, and "to prevent a nuclear accident," as Grossi said.
The head of the IAEA said he and his team needed protection to get to the station and urgent cooperation between Russia and Ukraine.

According to him, each side wants this international mission to depart from different places, which is understandable in the light of territorial integrity and political considerations, but there is something more urgent, namely the delivery of the IAEA team to Zaporozhye.

“The IAEA, by its presence, will act as a deterrent to any acts of violence against this nuclear power plant,” Grossi said. “So I plead as an international civil servant, as the head of an international organization, I plead with both sides to allow this mission to be carried out.”

Grossi was in New York to deliver the keynote speech at the opening on August 1 of the long-delayed high-level review meeting of the landmark 50-year Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ultimately achieve a nuclear-free world. .

In the interview, the IAEA chief also spoke about efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018 and which the Biden administration is working to revive.

Grossi said "there is an ongoing effort to try to have another meeting or round to explore the possibilities to reach an agreement." He said he had heard that the meeting "may be soon."

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the NPT Aug. 1 that Iran is "either unwilling or unable" to accept an agreement to fall back on a 2015 deal aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

Grossi said "there are important differences between the negotiating parties" and important verification issues related to past activities that Iran needs to resolve. “It's not impossible, it's difficult,” he said.

If the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, is not renewed, he said, some IAEA inspections will continue. But the JCPOA provides for additional transparency and inspections, "which I consider extremely important and very necessary because of the breadth and depth of Iran's nuclear program," he said.

Grossi stressed that cooperation with the IAEA, answering his questions, allowing his inspectors to go where they need to, is essential to building Iran's confidence. “Promises and kind words won't help,” he said.

A deal struck last September, under which the United States and Britain will supply Australia with nuclear reactors to power its submarines, requires an agreement with the IAEA to ensure that the amount of nuclear material on a ship when it leaves port is the same at its destination.

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He said that Australia has not yet decided what type of vessel it will receive, so while preparatory negotiations are underway, substantive negotiations cannot begin.

Because it's a military vessel, Grossi said, "any such agreement needs to include a lot of privacy and information protection measures, so it's very difficult from a technological standpoint."

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