Conditions at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant have left the world “one step away” from a nuclear catastrophe – with the chief of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) warning: “We are playing with fire”. Speaking to the watchdog’s 35-person board, Rafael Grossi said the “untenable” situation meant it was now vital to establish a safety and security protection zone at Europe’s largest nuclear power station. Speaking yesterday, Mr Grossi, the IAEA’s director-general, said: “This situation is untenable, and we are playing with fire.”
He continued: “We cannot continue this situation where we are one step away from a nuclear accident.
“The safety of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is hanging by a thread.”
The last operating reactor at the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine was earlier this month put into what is known as a cold shutdown after an external power line was restored, making it possible to shut it down more safely.
The lack of external power removed what are effectively lines of defence guarding against a nuclear meltdown at the site, which has been subject to fierce fighting in recent weeks.
Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling at the site of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant which has damaged buildings close to its six reactors, cutting power lines essential to cooling fuel in the reactors even though they are all shut down. IAEA inspectors visited the site earlier this month.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Grossi called both for an immediate stop to shelling and a more formal “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant.
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“Basically it’s a commitment that no military action will include or will imply aiming, of course, at the plant, or a radius that could be affecting its normal operation. This is what we expect.”
Dr Nickolas Roth, senior director on the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Program team, echoed Mr Grossi’s concerns when he spoke to Express.co.uk last month.
He explained: “I certainly remain concerned about the risk of a meltdown at a reactor or a fire within a tightly packed spent fuel pool at Zaporizhzhia resulting in widespread radiological contamination.
“The recent news about fighting around Zaporizhzhia is particularly alarming.
“Prior to that, there was already a safety and security crisis at the facility.”
He added: “Nuclear power plants were not intended for war zones and nuclear operators cannot safely run a plant at gunpoint.
“The UN Secretary General and US calls for ending military activities at and around Zaporizhzhia are important steps toward reducing risk.
“Nuclear power plants should not be military targets.”
Zaporizhzhia was built by the former Soviet Union near the city of Enerhodar, with construction beginning in 1980.
In 2014, right-wing activists were stopped from gaining access to the facility by Ukrainian police.
In December of that year, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk confirmed an incident had occurred which forced one of the plant’s six reactors offline on two separate occasions resulting in rolling blackouts throughout the country.