March 24, 2023

There is an ‘urgent’ need to create a ‘safety zone’ at the Russian-controlled Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in Ukraine to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, The International Atomic Energy Agency announced Tuesday.

“The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented,” the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned. “This is the first time a military conflict has occurred at a facility with a large established nuclear power program,” it said in a report.

The nuclear accident was a disaster not only for Ukraine, but also for countries “beyond its borders”.

Rescuers from the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Management take part in exercises in Zaporozhye city
A rescue worker from Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergency Services takes part in an exercise in Zaporozhye city, August 17, 2022, in case of a possible nuclear accident at a nuclear power plant.Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images File

“The IAEA is ready to begin consultations immediately to urgently establish such a nuclear safety and security reserve at the plant,” the IAEA said.

The Ukrainian energy company, which operates the Zaporozhye complex, reported that the last line connecting the power plant to the Ukrainian grid had been “intensive shelling” for several days.

The other three lines of defense fell early in the war.

“The world is again on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe,” Ukraine Energy Minister German Galushchenko said before on facebook.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi is expected to brief the UN Security Council on his team’s findings later on Tuesday.

“The current situation is untenable and the best course of action to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and its people is to put an immediate end to this armed conflict,” the IAEA report said.

The Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in the southeastern Ukrainian town of Enekhodar came online in the 1980s when the country was part of the then Soviet Union and provided up to 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity after independence. Its six reactors generate more electricity than any such facility in the United States.

But it was captured early in the Russian invasion that began in February.

IAEA inspectors arrived at the Zaporozhye plant on September 1 and since then have been assessing the damage to the plant, assessing its safety and security systems and interviewing Ukrainian workers who keep the plant running.

Before the war, the Ukrainian factory employed 11,000 people. It’s unclear how many there are. But the IAEA has left two inspectors at the plant.

“The IAEA remains seriously concerned about the situation in the ZNPP – this situation has not changed,” the watchdog said in its report, referring to the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. “Seven pillars were broken at the scene.”

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency
IAEA Director General Raphael Grossi speaks to the media at Vienna International Airport in Schwechat, Austria, on September 2, 2022, after returning from an inspection of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant.Heinz-Peter Bader/Getty Images

seven pillars IAEA’s seven core nuclear safety standardsthe first of which states: “The physical integrity of the facility must be maintained—whether it is a reactor, fuel pool, or radioactive waste repository.”

The West has accused Russia of using the nuclear power plant as a “shield” for its troops and weapons, increasing the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, and launching attacks on other Ukrainian targets from the site.

Russia has denied the allegations and, in turn, has accused Ukraine of repeated attacks on the plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that the consequences of a war-induced meltdown at a nuclear power plant will be far more far-reaching and “much more dire” than the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the northern Ukrainian city of Pripyat.

The disaster sparked the evacuation of more than 100,000 people living near the factory and caused a radioactive cloud to drift across much of Europe, and has been blamed for a spike in cancer — especially in children — in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.

Experts earlier told NBC News that the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is almost twice the size of the Chernobyl plant, despite its more modern reactors.

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