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Ukraine: Support Grows for IAEA Visit to Zaporozhye

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Support for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit to Ukraine's embattled and Russian-occupied Zaporozhye nuclear power plant (ZNPP) grew this week, with positive signals from both Ukraine and Russia, alongside unanimous approvals from the UN Security Council. But the devil is in the details, and it's not clear that a breakthrough is in sight over the logistics of such a visit, and in particular how IAEA officials might traverse the five miles from Ukrainian-held territory to Zaporozhye. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Washington this week endorsed the idea of creating a demilitarized zone around the plant, but Moscow is not playing ball.

"Over the past several days there have been reports of further deeply worrying incidents that could, if they continue, lead to disaster," Guterres said in a statement Thursday, Aug. 11, prior to a special UN Security Council session on the matter. "I am calling for all military activities in the immediate vicinity of the plant to cease immediately and not to target its facilities or surroundings."

Russia called for the special session in an apparent bid to convince fellow members of its side in the debate over who bears responsibility for fighting at the plant, including the attacks which began last Friday, Aug. 5, and continued this week. Ukraine's UN envoy, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told the Council that Russia "decided to go for broke" in calling for the meeting only after realizing it hadn't succeeded in convincing the public it bore no responsibility for the shellings. "This call looks especially cynical considering their most recent attack on the facility, which happened earlier today and directly endangered both the plant facilities and personnel."

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi spoke to the session via a video link and used the occasion to make a major push for an agency visit to the six-unit nuclear plant. The situation at Zaporozhye is "deteriorating rapidly," he told the session, adding that the agency has been receiving information from both sides "indicating the state of the facility, its operation and the damage assessment. However, the contents of such statements are frequently contradictory, and without — I repeat without — a physical presence, the IAEA cannot corroborate some very important facts."

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia's ambassador to the UN, told fellow Council members that it's "common sense" that the incoming missiles hitting Zaporozhye facilities are coming from Ukrainian rather than Russian forces. "Elementary logic would suggest that our soldiers would have no reason to shell" the plant that they already occupy.

Ukrainian Ambassador Kyslytsya told the meeting that shelling on Aug. 6 "damaged three radiation monitoring detectors at the dry spent fuel storage facility site," making impossible early detection "in the event of deterioration of the radiological situation or release of radiation from the spent fuel containers." He also blamed Russian armed forces for several explosions the previous day that damaged a 750 kilovolt external power supply line, ultimately lead to one reactor being powered down, and left the plant dependent on one remaining power line. "Should this last line be damaged," said Kyslytsya, the Zaporozhye nuclear plant "will be totally deenergized." He said that Russian plans "aim at disconnecting" the plant from "the energy system of Ukraine and cutting off electricity in the south of the country."

In prepared speeches, Council members all endorsed the idea of an IAEA mission to Zaporozhye but left the agency to work out how it would actually take place. There were multiple calls for an end to fighting at the plant with Guterres and US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins specifically endorsing Ukraine's proposal for a demilitarized zone around the plant.

A ZNPP Demilitarized Zone?

"I urge the withdrawal of any military personnel and equipment from the plant and the avoidance of any further deployment of forces or equipment to the site," Guterres said in his statement. "The facility must not be used as part of any military operation. Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area."

This proposal was seconded by Washington, which pushed for a number of smaller steps "in the absence" of a full Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. These include an IAEA mission to Zaporozhye "in a manner that respects Ukrainian sovereignty," the return of full control of Zaporozhye to Ukraine, and allowing Ukrainian staff at the plant "to fulfill their important duties free from the pressure of Russia's armed forces," Jenkins explained in her speech to the Council. "The United States also supports Ukraine's proposal to create a demilitarized zone around this Zaporozhye plant."

Russia's Nebenzia shot down the idea during a press scrum immediately after the session, suggesting it would leave the plant vulnerable to terrorists. "To demilitarize the station would make it prone to whoever [is] wanting to visit it," Nebenzia told reporters, and "with what purposes, and what aims" visitors might come "nobody knows. We cannot exclude any provocations, terrorist attacks on the station. We have to preserve the station."

A Stabilizing Mission?

That left the IAEA mission as the only proposal on the table that might, as Grossi put it, "provide a stabilizing influence."

Grossi also gave his fullest explanation yet of what such a mission might entail. " We will assess the physical damage to the facility," determine "whether the main and backup safety and security systems are functional, and evaluate the working conditions of the control room staff," said Grossi.

The IAEA mission "will also allow us to perform urgent safeguards activity verifying the status of the reactors, and inventories of nuclear material including fresh and spent fuel storage where we currently have no remote data transfer of surveillance," Grossi explained. "Furthermore, we need to perform maintenance on all IAEA safeguards equipment in order to ensure that remote data transmission and the maintenance of continuity of knowledge, which is indispensable after leaving the facility."

But all of this is dependent on getting IAEA experts to the plant, and Grossi pointed out that as the facility is "currently in Russian-occupied territory" it "cannot be reached by traveling exclusively through Ukrainian-controlled territory. We need to work pragmatically with authorities of both countries in efforts to obtain access for our experts to Zaporozhye."

To a certain extent this should be no problem given that both sides support the idea of a visit. With that said, Energoatom officials earlier pushed back stridently against a visit fearing it might legitimize the Russian occupation, and there was little public evidence of support from Kyiv. However, on Aug. 9 Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote a letter to both Grossi and Guterres requesting an IAEA visit and on Thursday Kyslytsya underscored that support, insisting that the government has wanted an IAEA visit to the plant since it was invaded. "Since the beginning of Russia's occupation of ZNPP, Ukraine has insisted on the need to send a mission," he told the Council, and "we deeply regret ... that such a visit has not yet taken place due to the destructive Russian position."

Now the difficulties appear to be entirely logistic, at least publicly. "Everybody believes that this mission must take place," Grossi told the Security Council after all the members had spoken. "It's no longer a matter of 'If', it's only a matter of 'When', and the 'When' must be as soon as possible. It's only the 'How' that needs to be addressed." Grossi concluded that he will be "intensifying" his coordination with Ukraine, with Russia and with the UN.

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