Ukraine: Zaporozhye Referendum Raises Stakes at Nuclear Plant

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Russia's announced plans to pursue a referendum to secure support for its ultimate control of the Zaporozhye region is complicating the issue of a visit by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to the region's nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control since early March. Activity at the plant is obscured by the fog of war, but multiple media reports alongside Ukrainian statements portray a plant not only under siege but one that has become a de facto military base, with growing amounts of military hardware.

The situation was underscored by diplomatic skirmishing Friday morning, Aug. 5, at the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (RevCon) that began this week in New York. Russian and Ukrainian delegates accused each other of shelling at or near the plant, with the Russian delegate saying fire had broken out at the plant, and both agreeing that a transmission line into the plant had been compromised.

"While this war rages on, inaction is unconscionable," IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in an Aug. 1 statement to the RevCon. Grossi spoke only hours after the New York Times published an on-the-ground article from the nearby Ukrainian-controlled village of Nikopol reporting that local residents are fleeing because of both Russian shelling from the nuclear power plant and the threat of a radiological disaster. "If an accident occurs" at Zaporozhye "we will not have a natural disaster to blame," said Grossi. "We will have only ourselves to answer to." Grossi added that "the people of" Zaporozhye and "people far" from the plant "are relying on all of us to prevent war from causing a nuclear tragedy that would compound the catastrophe already befalling Ukraine and causing hunger and insecurity beyond its borders."

Grossi believes that an IAEA mission of safety and security experts, alongside safeguards inspectors, would help de-escalate the situation. But "our vital mission has not been made possible," said Grossi, who has so far failed to secure a firm invitation from Kyiv, despite maintaining that the Ukraine government has requested the mission "at the highest levels." The first evidence of such high-level support emerged this week in an Aug. 3 tweet from Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymyr Zelensky's office. "IAEA experts should visit the station ASAP," he wrote. "The Russian invaders must remove military equipment and ammunition depots from the NPP territory. In the hands of Russian madmen, Europe's largest nuclear energy site has turned into the biggest nuclear threat."

Indeed, experts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War concluded in an Aug. 3 report that "Russian forces based around the NPP have attacked Ukrainian positions in Nikopol and elsewhere in recent weeks, intentionally putting Ukraine in a difficult position—either Ukraine returns fire, risking international condemnation and a nuclear incident (which Ukrainian forces are unlikely to do), or Ukrainian forces allow Russian forces to continue firing on Ukrainian positions from an effective 'safe zone'."

Russia denies this, and in a Jul. 29 letter to the IAEA asserted that there is "no Russian military equipment on the territory" of the Zaporozhye plant. The Russian contention is that the risk at Zaporozhye instead comes from Ukraine. "We welcome in every possible way that the head of the IAEA is going to visit Europe's largest nuclear power plant," Balitsky Evgeny, the local Ukrainian politician who has embraced the Russian occupation and was reportedly appointed governor of the Zaporozhye region in May, said in an Aug. 3 Telegram post. "We are ready to show how the Russian military guards it today, and how Ukraine, which receives weapons from the West, uses these weapons, including drones, to attack the nuclear plant, acting like a monkey with a grenade."

Despite such provocative language, and the enormous risks of a radiological disaster at Zaporozhye, some in the Ukrainian government remain resistant to an IAEA mission while Russian troops occupy Zaporozhye. "We know that the Russians pushed" the IAEA "to come," Energy Minister German Galushchenko said in an interview with Politico published Aug. 2. "They want them to come and then the IAEA would say: 'Oh, everything is OK, the nuclear material is OK, radiation is OK, Russians are perfect guys'." Galushchenko was clear that Ukraine "will never accept this" because "that's a legitimization of the Russian occupation of the station."

Legitimizing a Safeguards Breach?

Others have argued that an IAEA mission would also legitimize a breach of the IAEA safeguards system. Given that the IAEA has authority to inspect Zaporozhye under its 1998 comprehensive safeguards agreement with Ukraine, a visit to the plant authorized and enabled by Moscow would undermine that bilateral agreement, argue Victor Gilinsky, a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, and Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, based in Arlington, Virginia.

"The Russians, who have taken plant by force, are now effectively telling the IAEA, 'If you want access to the site, you have to forget about your agreement with Ukraine and come to us for permission, and thereby acknowledge that this is now a Russian plant'," Gilinsky and Sokolski wrote in a Jul. 28 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "The member countries of the IAEA face a decision: Which is more important, IAEA inspector access to the Zaporizhzhia site, or upholding the IAEA’s international system of safeguards by honoring the IAEA’s agreement with Ukraine and refusing Russian terms for access?"

And yet while few envisioned the current scenario, there is potentially room in Ukraine's 1998 safeguards agreement to justify an IAEA mission to a Russian-controlled facility. "In the event of Ukraine concluding that any unusual circumstances require extended limitations on access by the Agency," Article 76(d) of the agreement reads, "Ukraine and the Agency shall promptly make arrangements with a view to enabling the Agency to discharge its safeguards responsibilities in the light of these limitations." With that said, the IAEA has not been able to visit nuclear facilities covered by the agreement in areas of Ukraine controlled by Russia since 2014.

Even if the IAEA and Kyiv cobble together a legal justification for such arrangements under the safeguards agreement, few doubt that Moscow would use the optics of a visit to legitimize Russian control. Moscow will "insist that inspectors come through Russian-held territory, with Russian passport checks, to demonstrate the legitimacy of Russian control," argued Gilinsky and Sokolski.

These worries have only grown after Zaporozhye region Governor Evgeny announced last month that a referendum on Zaporozhye joining the Russian Federation would be held "in the fall" — presumably alongside similar referenda planned in other regions of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Gilinsky and Sokolski worry that such a referendum, in combination with a legitimizing IAEA visit to Zaporozhye, would set the stage for Moscow to end all further IAEA missions, given that its weapons-state status precludes mandatory safeguards inspections. Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom, meanwhile, worries that the referendum would lay the groundwork for Russia expropriating Ukraine's largest power generation plant.

For its part, Rosatom didn't directly respond to an Energy Intelligence question as to who it considers the owner of the Zaporozhye plant, but in a statement it did "categorically deny any involvement of Rosatom or any of its employees in the management or operations of the plant at any level." The Rosatom employees at the plant "are present on the site to ensure the safety of Zaporozhskaya nuclear power plant by offering technical, consulting, communications and other assistance to the operator if required." Zaporozhye "is controlled solely by the Ukrainian operator."

Rosatom said nothing about what might shift following the referendum. But the referendum may be weeks rather than months away, and it's not clear how or if the IAEA can square the circle and arrange a visit to Zaporozhe with Kyiv's signoff and without playing into Moscow's propaganda. Such a visit "requires the understanding and the cooperation of a number of actors," Grossi said in an Aug. 2 press conference. "It's a Ukrainian facility, so it requires Ukraine to agree with it, to be comfortable with it, and to help me carry out the mission. At the same time, the plant is occupied by Russia. I have to talk to everybody, and especially those who are in control of the place."

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact

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