IAEA: Ukraine Puts Grossi in the Firing Line Over Davos Statements

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Ukraine's frustrations, including over Russian cruise missiles allegedly overflying three of its four nuclear power plants, boiled over last week into a verbal attack on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director General Rafael Grossi for failing to effectively respond to Kyiv's "numerous appeals" for a "clear position" on "acts of Russia's nuclear terrorism." The IAEA has so far made no response to the criticism by Ukraine's nuclear regulator, but the accusations have put the nominally neutral international agency in the hot seat as it struggles to gain access to the Russian-occupied Zaporozhye nuclear plant in Ukraine's war-torn southeast.

Since Russian troops marched into the Chernobyl nuclear plant site at the war's outset on Feb. 24, the risk to Ukraine's nuclear infrastructure has only grown, particularly at Zaporozhye, where fighting and a fire broke out the night of Mar. 4, and, according to the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU), "three Ukrainian defenders" died. Grossi has wasted no opportunity for reaching out to both sides in the conflict, effectively positioning the agency as a broker on thorny and unprecedented nuclear-related issues and significantly raising the IAEA's profile. While this proactive approach has been widely applauded, Grossi appeared to slip up at a May 25 World Economic Forum panel discussion, where his remarks on the Zaporozhye situation prompted a furious response from Ukraine and accusations that he was parroting Russian "propaganda."

Grossi described the plant as Europe's largest with six reactors, and said it has "30,000 kilograms of plutonium, 40,000 kg of enriched uranium and my inspectors do not have access to that." He also said that the current situation at the plant, which though controlled by Russian forces is still operated by Energoatom, is both "unprecedented" and "unsustainable" and that inspectors needed to visit the site "to prevent that either there is a problem or we end up finding out that a few hundred kilograms of nuclear weapon-grade material has gone missing."

The SNRIU hit back two days later, criticizing the remarks for implying that sensitive material was stockpiled at the plant rather than contained in nuclear fuel, a large portion of which sits in spent fuel pools or dry casks. The Ukrainian agency said it "categorically refutes the information about the alleged presence of plutonium and enriched uranium stocks ... suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons," saying Ukraine did not have the facilities necessary to convert the material into weapons-usable material "due to the lack of technology and a political ban on its production." It added that "it is well known" to the IAEA that Ukraine annually fulfills its safeguards obligations, and called it "very sad that the odious lies of Russian propaganda are being broadcast at a high level by a top IAEA official."

Whether the Ukrainians misinterpreted the director general's remarks is debatable. One source said Grossi's remarks could be viewed as having been said in "an unguarded moment ... and he probably didn't mean to say it in that way." Even so, the source said he was "flabbergasted" that Grossi didn't clarify that the material was contained in nuclear fuel, and he added that "it's now becoming a sort of open secret that he wants to run for secretary general after [current UN Secretary General Antonio] Guterres," whose term expires in 2026. Grossi could "have said, 'you know there's so much plutonium in the spent fuel' ... but then that takes away the oomph of the statement."

Grossi's public profile is leagues ahead of his IAEA predecessors, but while increasing his own visibility on the world stage, he has also expanded the agency's — something he promised to do while he was campaigning for his current position. "He is making the agency more visible and deservedly so," said Laura Rockwood, director of Open Nuclear Network and a former senior IAEA lawyer.

Diplomatic Battleground

The IAEA has become a diplomatic battleground for nuclear-related allegations from both sides. For example, a 'note verbale' from the Ukrainians circulated by the agency Apr. 29 reported three alleged instances of cruise missile overflights over the South Ukraine, Khmelnitski and Zaporozhye nuclear power plants, respectively on Apr. 16, 25 and 26. Russia accused Ukraine of launching two unmanned armed drones over Zaporozhye on Apr. 27, according to a May 13 diplomatic note circulated by the agency.

It's worth noting that earlier in the conflict, when both Chernobyl and Zaporozhye were under siege, Grossi promoted his "seven pillars" of safety, including that nuclear plant "operating staff must be able to fulfill their safety and security duties, and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure."

However, recent IAEA updates, which are now far less frequent than in the past, contain a blanket statement attributed to Ukraine, of "no significant developments related to nuclear safety and security in the country over the past 24 hours." Ukraine says these assurances are emboldening the Russians and coming from Russian-appointed officials in Ukraine.

Although Russian forces finally left Chernobyl and a second IAEA mission at the site began this week, it's not at all clear the same will occur at Zaporozhye. Increasingly there are questions about which side will ultimately retain control of the plant, with Ukraine’s state-owned grid operator Ukrenergo on May 18 dismissing an alleged Russian claim that the plant would supply Russia with electricity. "Ukraine’s power system currently has no physical connections with Russia’s power system. Therefore, the supply of electricity from Ukrainian power plants to Russia is currently physically impossible,” Ukrenergo said in a statement tweeted out the same day.

In fact, the battle for control over Ukraine's large nuclear infrastructure appears to have almost inadvertently started just hours before the invasion began when Ukrenergo conducted what was intended to be a short-lived experimental break with the larger Russian-operated network in preparation for a plan to connect Ukraine and Moldova to the continental European grid in 2023. However, just hours after the exercise started Russia invaded and priority was put on synchronizing the Ukrenergo-operated grid with the grid operated by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity. On Mar. 16 EC Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson issued a statement announcing the linkage, calling it a "historic milestone for the EU-Ukraine relationship" that involved "doing a year's work in two weeks."

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