Mark HibbsMake the IAEA Mission to ZNPP Happen

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an international governmental organization of which both Russia and Ukraine are members, and so it is profoundly challenged by nuclear safety and nuclear security threats unfolding at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Because the crisis at the plant was triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 in violation of international law, and directly follows from Russia’s military assault and occupation of the installation on March 4, the IAEA can do little to effectively respond in close quarters without, in effect, having to take sides and name names.

Russia is a permanent member of the IAEA’s most important policy organ, the Board of Governors. Russia, probably joined by China (another permanent board member) would vote against any resolution tabled by the board addressing Russia’s conduct in the war. They already did so once, on March 3. Then, a majority of the board’s 35 members voted to deplore Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Russia and China voted against the resolution.

One day later, invading Russian forces overran and occupied ZNPP. According to Ukrainian and IAEA officials, since March 4 threats to nuclear safety and nuclear security at ZNPP have emerged and greatly magnified. The IAEA Secretariat led by Director General Rafael Grossi therefore wants to conduct a mission to the power plant. 

Challenges and Risks

Until very recently, such an IAEA intervention has not been possible because both Ukraine and Russia appeared to set conditions that were unacceptable to the other side, and because IAEA member states were reluctant to firmly embrace Grossi’s initiative. Russia, if media accounts are accurate, would not permit a visit to ZNPP without IAEA representatives getting express visa approval from Russian authorities. Last month, Ukrainian sources said Kyiv had opposed an IAEA visit because in its view that would honor Russia’s claim to occupy the power plant. 

The IAEA Secretariat has limited legal authority to put feet on the ground at ZNPP. Under Ukraine’s IAEA safeguards agreement, the IAEA Secretariat may send safeguards inspectors to ZNPP since the IAEA is obligated to verify that nuclear materials in Ukraine are accounted for. But Grossi has no express authority under any binding agreements to compel Russia or Ukraine to open their doors to IAEA personnel to pursue any nuclear safety or nuclear security concerns at any installation. 

If Vienna diplomats and Ukrainian officials are to be believed, regardless of Grossi’s strong interest to intervene, the political will of the IAEA may have been blunted by a culture of member state influence trading that provides states a reach-in to senior IAEA staff that may reduce the effectiveness of the Secretariat in responding to nuclear safety concerns. In 2011, some member states objected that Japan had meddled in the Secretariat’s early response to the severe nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi. In 2022, Ukraine has charged that Russian staff in the Secretariat have interfered in Moscow’s favor with the IAEA’s response to the current crisis.

For the IAEA, sending a mission to ZNPP would entail certain risks. First and foremost, ZNPP is located in a war zone occupied by invading forces; IAEA personnel might be threatened by combat including during travel to or from the site. During a visit IAEA staff might be subject to pressure, manipulation or propaganda; should an IAEA mission materialize, the IAEA may have to explicitly state that, by visiting ZNPP, it is not honoring Russia’s occupation of the nuclear power plant. 

Effective IAEA Engagement

These challenges notwithstanding, the scope of potential consequences from a further escalation of the current crisis render imperative that the IAEA, in consort with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and with member states’ firm support, carry out a technical mission to the plant with the express purpose of assessing and responding to nuclear safeguards, safety, and security risks following from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

In recent days, by all accounts the plant site appears to have been shelled by combatants. According to Ukraine nuclear officials, on August 7 two ZNPP workers were injured during attacks, one of which suffered shrapnel wounds and was taken to a hospital intensive care unit. During attacks, they said, missiles hit a spent fuel dry storage facility equipped with 174 containers, each holding 24 spent fuel assemblies. Beginning in March, Ukraine has raised plausible allegations that Ukrainian plant operators have been intimidated and subject to violence by occupiers.  According to Ukrainian officials in mid-July, about 500 Russian military personnel were at the plant site, and following from turmoil there two of four 750-KV lines supplying power to the plant were inoperable, increasing the risk, they said, of a station blackout should further damage to power supplies be incurred. This week, media reports asserted that an additional power line was damaged; some accounts stated that the plant was compelled to connect to auxiliary diesel generators for power. None of these reports can be independently confirmed because no independent experts have been on the site since ZNPP was overrun. 

The recent escalation of nuclear risks at ZNPP has prompted the United Nations Secretariat, nuclear professional organizations, and the G-7 group of states to register their official support for an IAEA mission to the plant. It would also appear that diplomacy has been underway to sway Moscow and Kyiv to agree to an IAEA mission on like terms. On August 11, in the background of a UN Security Council meeting held that day to confer on the crisis, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA tweeted Moscow’s support of the IAEA going to the plant. Ukrainian sources this week also said that Ukraine now strongly favors the IAEA leading a mission to ZNPP. The United States and the UN Secretariat have proposed that a facilitating ceasefire be arranged.  

These developments should prepare the way for the IAEA Board of Governors to request that the IAEA Secretariat carry out an expert mission to the plant. The board might urge Grossi to report to member states concerning, inter alia: 1.) Competing claims by Russia and Ukraine that the other side has fired missiles at ZNPP; 2.) claims by Ukraine that Russian occupiers are harassing and intimidating Ukrainian personnel; 3.) claims by Ukraine that Russian forces have mined the installation and introduced explosives into the site; 4.) Ukrainian assertions that Russian forces have launched artillery attacks from inside the nuclear power plant site including at targets on the Dnieper River; 5.) the vulnerability to sabotage and military attack of critical systems and plant equipment, on-site and off-site power supplies, and spent fuel stored on the site; 6.) procedures and actions to perform scheduled and unscheduled maintenance including equipment replacement and repair; and 7.) the provision of oversight including the interaction of Russian and Ukrainian personnel. Based on information obtained during a visit to the plant, including unchaperoned interviews with Ukrainian operators, and observation of critical equipment at the station, the IAEA Secretariat may provide member states an assessment of nuclear risks and make recommendations to Russian and Ukrainian personnel that are aimed at reducing specific risks.

At Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011, complacency contributed to severe accidents which destroyed nuclear power plants and led to widespread destruction and trauma. In Vienna and at Zaphorizhzhia in 2022, expeditious action by the IAEA Secretariat and Board of Governors could help significantly reduce the odds of a nuclear accident at ZNPP. This week the world’s media have been focused on fresh and alarming allegations about the safety status of ZNPP. In coming weeks and months international attention may shift elsewhere, especially if Russia’s war appears to drag on indefinitely and the world anticipates that fighting will grind to a stalemate. That assumption could be fatally wrong; a sudden change in the fortunes of war near the power plant could immediately escalate nuclear risks. No news at ZNPP may also mean bad news. In any case, extraordinary nuclear dangers at ZNPP loom and they need to be assessed and addressed now. 


  1. Horu (History)

    Good morning Mark, thank you AMC Wonk , for shedding light to the potential risks/disadtets that artilary shelling of ZNPP could create for many countries in the Black Sea, Europe, and the Middle East.
    One must show objective analysis regardless of the political/military biases one may or may not have about the current sutuation in the Ukraine. You have provided atleast 7 point 6 of which clearly indicates the Ukraine positions, and none of the the Russian positions in any point forms, your srated in point 1 Bout the counter claims of both Russia and the Ukraine shelling the ZNPP, yet you also state in your analysis that the Rusdians have been in control of ZNPP since March. How is it possible that the one that occupies ZNPP is acrually shelling ZNPP?
    I knew Russian invaded the Ukraine in February this year and the coflict still rages on without International efforts to mediate between the these two countries, but I honestly was not upto date about the ZNPP, hence, my questions about qualified objective approach of addressing and preventing potential disasters, which can only be achieved if we leave our political and strategic biases at the door.

    Thank you