By Honorable. David Waller
Washington Institute’s Board Member
and the Former Deputy Director General of the IAEA
The following is in response to a request from Washington Institute’s Founder and
CEO James P. Moore, Jr. for a statement on the ongoing threat posed by Ukraine’s
Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – written in as ‘plain of speak' as possible, given this
highly complex and fluid situation:
By way of background, Ukraine has 15 operating nuclear reactors, which, prior to the war, collectively supplied more than half of the country’s electricity (reducing undue dependence on Russian oil and gas). Six of those 15 reactors are located at the Zaporizhzhia facility in the southeastern part of the country – making it the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Pre-war, the Zaporizhzhia plant alone supplied more than a fifth of Ukraine's electricity, rendering it a critical asset, not least of which for heating during the country’s harsh winters. In the course of capturing the plant in early
March Russian munitions set fire to a part of the massive complex – marking the first incident of military conflict in the immediate vicinity of an operating nuclear power plant.
The primary danger here is a nuclear meltdown, which can occur if fuel in a reactor isn’t
sufficiently cooled. In that event, the uranium in the fuel rods melts and – if there are breaches in
the building’s containment shell – can result in the release of radioactive material. Such a disaster at Zaporizhzhia could – depending on weather conditions – spread radioactive material, not only across Ukraine, but to neighboring countries as well.
Nuclear power plants generate electricity. But they also need and consume electricity to run their critical cooling systems. In that context, physical damage caused by the frequent shelling and other hostilities in the immediate vicinity of the plant have this past week intermittently cut off electricity transmission to the plant from the Ukrainian power grid – potentially halting operation of cooling systems, and raising fears of a nuclear accident.
As a backup, each of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors has diesel generators, which activate in the
event of a cut-off. And, according to President Zelenskyy, those generators, indeed, have
kicked in and temporarily supported critical operations – thereby preventing a disaster.
Needless to say, the situation on the ground is extremely fluid. Today’s reports refer to
the partial and intermittent disconnections from the grid beginning last week – due to
mortar shelling – and its complete disconnection at present. And, they report that now but
one of the 6 reactors is operational. Fortunately, however, the plant is linked by a reserve
line to a nearby thermal power plant, which delivers electricity to the grid. That thermal
facility can also provide back-up power to the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Meanwhile, following weeks of negotiations over access, a team of 14 experts from the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached the plant last Thursday – amidst
active shelling in the area. Their mission is to assess the physical damage to the plant’s
facilities, and the functionality of the main and back-up safety and security systems. They
are also charged with evaluating the Ukrainian staff’s working conditions. Those staff has
continued to operate the plant since its March seizure, but under extremely trying
circumstances given the Russian occupation.
The IAEA is expected to produce a report
this week to address the status of the facility.
In that context it’s important to underscore
that – based on the inspectors’ findings – the
IAEA report will advise, not dictate,
regarding critical remedial actions. Taking
the recommended action, however, is the
responsibility of the IAEA Member State,
i.e., Ukraine. Needless to say, Russian’s
occupation of the plant could greatly
complicate Ukraine’s efforts to do so.
Following the IAEA's initial inspection on
Thursday, six members of the team
remained to continue the work. And, ultimately, two are expected to remain so as to
provide a continued presence and ‘regular, reliable, impartial, neutral updates’ on the
Zelenskyy, the UN, and others have called for the IAEA to take permanent control of the
plant and/or create a demilitarized zone around the facility – pleas rejected by Russia,
arguing that its troops provide a ‘guarantee’ against nuclear disaster.
A very dangerous game is being played here, and the UN Security Council will consider
the matter at a session this afternoon.
Bottom line: While the presence of the IAEA inspectors is encouraging, the fact remains
that the plant is in an active war zone – creating terrifying and unacceptable risk, and
giving new meaning to the term ‘playing with fire’. This must stop.
Waller was the long-serving Deputy Director General of the IAEA. In 2005 he
represented the IAEA’s management at the ceremony in Oslo awarding it, and its
Director General, the Nobel Peace Prize. Previously Waller had served as a legal
counsel to President Ronald Reagan, and as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for