Shutterstock Save for later Print Download Share LinkedIn Twitter The situation for workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant grew more grim this week as the plant's manager was abducted and they were forced to decide between competing management and owners, following the Kremlin's announcement that the plant is now Russian. Workers at Europe's largest nuclear plant must now decide whether to sign employment contracts with — and follow the directives of — a new Russian firm the Kremlin asserts is the plant's owner, or whether to stay committed to Ukrainian operator Energoatom and face retribution from the Russian forces that control Zaporizhzhia. "This is a particularly dangerous moment for the safety and security of" Zaporizhzhia, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi said in an Oct. 6 statement released after he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. "Staff at the plant are being forced to make a hugely difficult decision for themselves and their loved ones. The enormous pressure they are facing must stop." The latest developments risk exacerbating the situation by leading to confusion about who is in charge as well as ambiguity about the command-and-control chain at the plant, Grossi said.The pressure began last week as Russia illegally annexed four provinces of Ukraine, including the Zaporizhzhia province, home to the six VVER-1000s at the nuclear power plant (NPP) that has been occupied by Russian troops since March. Late on Thursday, Sep. 29, the Ukrainian delegation at the IAEA General Conference alleged that Russia's Rosatom had told Zaporizhzhia employees they would need to apply for employment at Rosatom within the next two weeks. The next day Ihor Murashov, the plant's director general who has overseen the plant throughout its occupation, was kidnapped and detained by Russian forces. “Such a detention of any member of the plant staff would be a source of grave concern in itself, but also for its psychological impact and pressure on the rest of the staff — which is detrimental to nuclear safety and security,” Grossi said in an Oct. 1 statement.After Russia's Duma ratified the annexation earlier this week the Kremlin made official its play for the nuclear plant: an Oct. 5 decree ensured the "acceptance into federal ownership" of the facility and established a new state-owned enterprise called "Zaporozhye NPP" — using the Russian rather than Ukrainian spelling of the plant — to operate it.A Play for Ownership and Control"In the near future, all current NPP employees will be employed as staff in the new operating organization with the same wages and social guarantees," Oleg Romanenko, the Russian-appointed head of the new Zaporozhye NPP operating company, said in an Oct. 5 statement released by Rosenergoatom, the Rosatom subsidiary that operates Russia's domestic nuclear fleet. Romanenko previously served as head of Rosenergoatom's Balakovo nuclear plant, which has four VVER-1000s.The assertion of Russian operational control at Zaporizhzhia is a striking departure from the uneasy status quo of the past seven months. Only last week Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's ambassador to the IAEA, boasted to Energy Intelligence that the Russian troops occupying Zaporizhzhia were not interfering at all operationally. "The plant is being operated by Ukrainians: Ukrainian personnel and Energoatom, which is located in Kyiv," said Ulyanov. This past week, however, has seen a concerted Russian assault on Zaporizhzhia's operations, starting with the Sep. 29 ultimatum to plant workers and escalating with Murashev's kidnapping and detention over the weekend. Following diplomatic efforts Murashev was released, but once safely back with his family he stepped down from his role and Energoatom announced Oct. 5 that Petro Kotin, its president, would temporarily and remotely assume the role of Zaporizhzhia director-general. Kotin can have only limited impact on Zaporizhzhia, however, given Russian assertion of operational control. In an Oct. 5 Telegram post Kotin exhorted plant workers not to conclude any agreements, statements or contracts with the Russian occupiers. "Do not do this under any circumstances!" said Kotin from Kyiv. Energoatom has also established a telephone help line for its employees working under the Russian occupation. Furious Reactions Not surprisingly Russia's aggressive moves prompted furious pushback across the world, particularly following last week's annexation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared it has "no legal value" and "cannot be reconciled with the international legal framework."The Kremlin's expropriation of Zaporizhzhia was dismissed as a "worthless decision" by Energoatom, while Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko sent letters to the IAEA, European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson and various G7 ministers calling on "all states" to implement sanctions against Rosatom and the Russian nuclear industry. Rosatom is being drawn in ever further to the takeover of Zaporizhzhia, but the Kremlin's expropriation decree doesn't mention the state-owned nuclear powerhouse, and the Rosenergoatom announcement said only that the newly-launched Zaporozhye NPP company "is designed to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plant and oversee the work of the plant’s existing personnel with the support of Rosenergoatom."For the moment the likelihood of sanctions against Rosatom are remote. The operational and attempted legal seizures at Zaporizhzhia were condemned by both Washington and Brussels, but neither singled out Rosatom. "Zaporizhzhia belongs to Ukraine, the power plant belongs to Ukraine, and the electricity and the energy that it produces rightly belongs to Ukraine," US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said Oct. 6. "President Putin has absolutely no authority to take over a power plant in another country and a piece of paper issued by him or his government certainly doesn’t change that fact either."In Vienna the EU mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation-in Europe on Oct. 6 condemned "Russia’s attempts to legitimise its illegal seizure of nuclear facilities in Ukrainian sovereign territory, including President Putin’s recent decree" on Zaporizhzhia. The EU "fully supports" Grossi's work "assisting Ukraine to ensure nuclear safety and security, and to maintain the implementation of the safeguards," it continued. "However, the only way to assure the long-term safety and security of the facility is for Russia to withdraw its troops" from the Zaporizhzhia NPP "and return it to full and exclusive Ukrainian control."For his part Grossi, who was headed to Moscow following his discussions in Kyiv, made clear that the IAEA "will be guided" by international law. But it's unclear how or whether he can contribute to de-escalating the situation, particularly the rival chains of command. It's also unclear whether Grossi will obtain agreement from Russia to retain IAEA safeguards at Zaporizhzhia, as Ukraine has done. Ulyanov's office in Vienna declined to comment on whether Russia, which as a nuclear weapons state has no obligation to submit its domestic facilities to IAEA safeguards, will maintain the safeguards status quo at the embattled plant.