By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The seven-month-old war between Russia and Ukraine has notched up a rare first: a nuclear power plant in the middle of a devastating battlefield.
At a Security Council briefing on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) on September 6, Ambassador Barbara Woodward of the UK said by choosing to invade a nuclear power plant, and putting ZNPP in the crossfire, Moscow is playing “Russian roulette” with nuclear safety.
“As long as Russia’s occupation of the plant continues, its safe and secure operation cannot be ensured,” she warned.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on a US television interview on September 4 “the Russians are using the plant as a nuclear weapon against Ukraine”.
Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Graduate Program Director, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IDN the situation at the Zaporizhia nuclear plant is alarming.
“We have not seen such attacks since Israel illegally bombed reactors in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007).”
He said continued military action and attacks in the vicinity of Zaporizhia could result in widespread radioactive contamination, as witnessed after the multiple reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan and the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.
“Of course, the exact sequence of events that result in the release of radioactive materials would be different at Zaporizhia in comparison to Fukushima and Chernobyl.”
“But the qualitative picture once the release happens will be somewhat similar, but with the important difference that the large-scale evacuation that was carried out in Fukushima and, somewhat belatedly, at Chernobyl, might not be feasible right now because of the ongoing Russian invasion.”
He pointed out that Russia has so far rejected calls to declare the area as a demilitarized zone. These accident risks are so severe that the acting head of Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate has suggested the possibility of shutting down the plant entirely.
While this would further challenge energy supply within Ukraine, it would somewhat lower the risk, there would still be the risk of radioactive contamination because of the ongoing need to cool the core of the reactors and the spent fuel pools, said Dr Ramana.
The warnings have also come from Secretary-General António Guterres, along with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which sent a team of investigators to the power plant early September.
In his statement on September 6, Guterres said: “I remain gravely concerned about the situation in and around the Zaporizhia plant, including reports of recent shelling.”
Let’s tell it like it is: Any damage, whether intentional or not, to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia—or to any other nuclear facility in Ukraine—could spell catastrophe, not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond, he noted.
“All steps must be taken to avoid such a scenario. Common sense and cooperation must guide the way forward. Any action that might endanger the physical integrity, safety or security of the nuclear plant is unacceptable,” he warned.
Guterres also said all efforts to re-establish the plant as purely civilian infrastructure are vital.
“As a first step, Russian and Ukrainian forces must commit not to engage in any military activity towards the plant site or from the plant site. The Zaporizhia facility and its surroundings must not be a target or a platform for military operations.
As a second step, an agreement on a demilitarized perimeter should be secured. Specifically, that would include a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it.
Operators at the plant must be able to carry out their responsibilities, and communications must be maintained. Now is the time to urgently agree on concrete measures to ensure the safety of the area, Guterres declared.
US Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Senior Advisor for Special Political Affairs told the Security Council on September 6: “This is a matter of international nuclear safety and security. The potential danger here is enormous. It concerns us all.”
“And so once again, we support Ukraine’s call for the demilitarization of the area surrounding the Zaporizhia facility. And we demand Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine’s sovereign territory. ”
He said that despite Russia’s song and dance here today (at the Security Council), to avoid acknowledging responsibility for its actions, Russia has no right to expose the world to unnecessary risk and the possibility of nuclear catastrophe.
Worse, this is a situation entirely of Russia’s making. The current danger at Zaporizhia is a result of Russia’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine. And specifically, it is a result of Russia’s premeditated March 4 seizure of this plant.
The international community called for Russia to avoid the nuclear plant. Instead, Russian troops struck and seized the facility, jeopardizing the IAEA’s Seven Pillars of nuclear safety and security. Russia continues to conduct military operations around the plant. Every day Russia controls the plant increases the risk of a nuclear incident.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, told the Security Council on September 6: “We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place.”
Currently, the IAEA has two inspectors at the plant to monitor conditions and report back to the UN agency which preceded a visit to the plant by a team of 14 experts.
A headline in the New York Times on September 6 was ominous: “Ukrainian Power plan Blitzed by Shelling, Hangs by a Thread”
Still Grossi had the final word: the shelling “underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 September 2022]
Photo: IAEA chief Grossi and mission team members inspecting the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant on 1 September 2022. CC BY 2.0
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