Ukraine: Regulator Describes 'Terrorism' at Zaporozhye

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Ukraine's nuclear regulatory agency faces an unprecedented struggle to maintain nuclear safety, most notably including "terrorism against firefighters and nuclear power plant personnel" at the Russian-occupied Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, according to Oleg Korikov, the organization's beleaguered interim head.

Korikov warned fellow European regulators in Europe that Ukraine's Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (SNRIU) is unprepared for further deterioration at Zaporozhye, a six-reactor facility that is Europe's largest nuclear plant, and is essentially in uncharted waters. "We do not have rules, regulations [for] how we can regulate, how we can operate, in these conditions," said Korikov.

Staff at Zaporozhye "is under heavy psychological pressure of Russian soldiers," the SNRIU's acting chairman and chief state inspector told a Jun. 20 meeting of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group. There is "kidnapping and attacks on nuclear power plant staff" in Enerhodar, the Russian-occupied city closest to the plant. "We have evidence of this." This appeared to confirm what has emerged as one of the most troubling aspects of the situation at Zaporozhye and Enerhodar since both were occupied by Russian troops on Mar. 4: the kidnapping, intimidation, interrogation and torture of Zaporozhye workers.

In a Jun. 17 article, the Wall Street Journal documented a campaign of intimidation against Zaporozhye employees by Russian troops worried that workers were passing on information to Ukrainian forces. This includes workers going missing, being shot or being kidnapped and imprisoned for weeks at a time, sometimes with no food or water.

"There are incidents of military pressure" against plant workers, including troops firing at staff and "kidnapping of the chief" of the plant, said Korikov, who began his career at Zaporozhye as a field operator and then a control room operator.

The situation at Korikov's former workplace, meanwhile, is only deteriorating: two days after Korikov's speech Enerhodar Mayor Dmitry Orlov described a growing wave of kidnappings as "catastrophic" during a meeting with Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine's nuclear operator Energoatom. "People are being abducted en masse, the whereabouts of some of them are unknown," said Orlov describing the conversation in a Jun. 22 Telegram post. "The rest are in very difficult conditions: they are being tortured and bullied both physically and morally."

Regulating From a Distance

The SNRIU faces enormous pressures of its own. Many SNRIU staff are "working in a stressful situation" unrelated to Zaporozhye, said Korikov, who explained that some were conscripted to fight in the Ukrainian military, some were in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine where it is "impossible for them to perform" their functions, and some "may be abroad" working remotely. "Existing communications channels are unstable," warned Korikov.

The SNRIU is not only unable to send inspectors to the besieged plant, it struggles just to know what's going on there. "Ordinary communication" is "very under pressure," noted Korikov, and "whenever possible any other available means of communication are used."

For the moment the SNRIU's oversight of Zaporozhye is therefore limited to the collection, analysis and review of whatever information the regulator's staff is able to glean via furtive — and risky — communication with Energoatom's Zaporozhye staff on the ground. From the legal point of view, Korikov explained that under conditions of martial law Ukraine allows the validity of nuclear facility licenses to be automatically renewed until martial law is ended. But that does not address actual safety on the ground at Zaporozhye.

None of the usual reporting methods relied up by a nuclear regulator to address safety questions, such as a safety analysis report, "take into account military action in the region and in the country as a whole," said Korikov. "So if we get some damage related to military aggression — for example transformer damage or oil tanks [damage], or something like this — we face the problems which we are not ready yet to manage."

Debating Next Steps

Not for the first time, Korikov found himself at odds with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over possible solutions. While Korikov argued that Zaporozhye's safety and security could only be secured with the end of Russian occupation, IAEA head Rafael Grossi continued his push to send a mission of inspectors and experts to the plant over vehement Ukrainian objections.

In a pre-recorded address to the Brussels conference played on Jun. 20, Grossi doubled down on that IAEA initiative. "It's critically important that our team's safeguards inspectors and safety and security experts travel to Zaporozhye," said Grossi, who claimed that "Ukraine's government has requested it at the highest levels. It's the mandate of the IAEA to answer that call, and it is my responsibility as director general to see it through."

Korikov did not address — nor was he asked about — the considerable distance between Grossi's claim that Kyiv had requested an IAEA mission to Zaporozhye, and the very public refusals of such a request from the SNRIU and Energoatom, both of which believe such a mission might legitimize the Russian occupation. But Korikov sat on stage next to Lydie Evrard, the IAEA's deputy director general for nuclear safety and security, and he conferred with her privately long after the public session had ended.

"There are different and big issues for nuclear safety and security given the current circumstances, with the plant operated by Ukraine and with military forces in the vicinity and on site," Evrard told the conference. She further argued that "the main issue" with "direct implications" for nuclear safety and security at Zaporozhye was "the pressure on the staff." And this is what the IAEA would like to "examine further" in an agency mission to the plant.

Nuclear, Military Conflict, Policy and Regulation, Ukraine Crisis
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