№ 6, 2024. Zaporizhzhia NPP: Escalation Zone 

March 21, 2024

Last week, the situation around Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has escalated again — an explosive device dropped from a drone nearly caused the explosion of a fuel storage[1]. This is not the first — and unlikely to be the last — attack against ZNPP.

In March 2022, ZNPP came under the jurisdiction of Russia, while Moscow assumed the obligation to operate it. Ukraine was dissatisfied with such a development but found this situation useful to attract attention and create a favorable information agenda by launching attacks on the critical facilities and blaming Russia for them. However, Ukraine directly or indirectly recognized its own involvement in the attacks. In October 2023, Kyrylo Budanov, the Head of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, noted in an interview “that his department’s special forces made three attempts to attack and seize the ZNPP”[2].

On the contrary, it was Russia that insisted on the presence of IAEA experts at ZNPP, while Kiev tried to resist such attempts[3] by blocking IAEA initiatives to strengthen security around ZNPP[4]. As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko pointed out in May 2023, Ukraine firstly blocked “the draft trilateral agreements, then did the same with the two separate bilateral agreements Russia-IAEA and Ukraine-IAEA”[5].

Russia regularly notifies the IAEA of the situation around ZNPP by disseminating information circulars. These circulars contain detailed information about attacks on ZNPP or facilities adjacent to it and attach photos from the sites of events[6]. Since September 2022, at the Russian invitation, four IAEA experts have been present at ZNPP, who, based on the results of the conducted inspections, transfer information to the IAEA Secretariat, which prepares materials for the IAEA Director General. 

On March 14, ZNPP was again attacked. In response, Russia circulated an information circular to the IAEA, while the Agency issued a statement, but did not name the guilty. According to Mikhail Ulyanov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the International Organizations in Vienna, “the IAEA refers to its own Statute, which does not provide for the Secretariat to perform attributive functions”. Publicly, the IAEA refrains from any critical assessment of the situation around ZNPP, but Director General Rafael Grossi demonstrates interest in ensuring the safety of the facility and is doing his best for this purpose. In February 2024, he visited ZNPP for the fourth time, and on March 8, he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Aleksey Likhachev, Director General of Rosatom, in Sochi; however, earlier, Rafael Grossi met with Volodymyr Zelensky. As a result of both meetings, the Director General noted that “we must remember that ZNPP is located in a war zone. And concerns about its safety are growing”[7].

However, the probability of a large-scale accident at ZNPP is extremely unlikely. The plant consists of six VVER-1000-type power units, which are among the safest and most protected. In addition, all reactors are in shutdown mod; they are cooled down and depressurized. The reactors are designed to withstand both internal and external threats; the latter include a potential airplane crash, earthquake, homing, and tsunami[8]. As some experts have noted, “it is virtually impossible to cause a serious accident by acting from the outside”[9], because the most radioactively hazardous facilities are the most heavily protected.

Not only nuclear reactors but also spent nuclear fuel (SNF) storage facilities could be at risk from a possible attack. SNF storage technologies provide protection against possible attacks and natural damages[10]. Nevertheless, even assuming that an accident at a SNF storage facility results in the release of nuclear material, the scale of the accident would affect a relatively small area and would not result in a large-scale disaster.

Despite robust systems, the security of NPP depends heavily on humans. The only possible way to secure nuclear facilities in times of conflict is not to attack them. It is a seemingly basic principle, but not everyone is willing to abide by it.

[1] Черненко Е. Прилет не по расписанию // Коммерсантъ. 14 марта 2024. URL: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6564297

[2] Буданов признал три украинские попытки атаковать ЗАЭС // ТАСС. 9 октября 2023. URL: https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/18945679

[3] Карчаа заявил, что именно Россия настояла на присутствии миссии МАГАТЭ на ЗАЭС // ТАСС. 21 июля 2023. URL: https://tass.ru/politika/18333879

[4] Киев в СБ ООН пообещал не допустить инцидент на АЭС // РИА Новости. 31 мая 2023. URL: https://ria.ru/20230531/intsident-1875215233.html

[5] Чернеко Е. МИД РФ: Украина заблокировала все инициативы главы МАГАТЭ по укреплению безопасности Запорожской АЭС // Коммерсантъ. 31 мая 2023. URL: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6014893

[6] Communication from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Agency // IAEA. November 9, 2023. URL:https://www.iaea.org/publications/documents/infcircs/communication-from-the-permanent-mission-of-the-russian-federation-to-the-agency-16 ; Сообщение Постоянного представительства Российской Федерации при Агентстве // МАГАТЭ. 8 ноября 2023. URL:https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/infcircs/2023/infcirc1150_rus.pdf

[6] Гросси рассказал, что обсуждал безопасность ЗАЭС и с Путиным, и с Зеленским // ТАСС. 14 марта 2024. URL: https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/20232501

[7] Гросси рассказал, что обсуждал безопасность ЗАЭС и с Путиным, и с Зеленским // ТАСС. 14.03.2024. URL: https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/20232501.

[8] Обеспечение безопасности АЭС // Росэнергоатом. URL: www.rosenergoatom.ru/safety_environment/obespechenie-bezopasnosti/bezopasnost-aes/

[9] Черненко Е. «Инцидент, сравнимый с Чернобылем, представить себе практически невозможно» // Коммерсантъ. 14 июля 2023. URL:https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/6098142

[10] № NF-T-3.3. Хранение отработавшего топлива до отправки на переработку или захоронение. Вена: Международное агентство по атомной энергии, 2021. – 54 с. URL: https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/P1846R_web.pdf

Key words: Zaporizhzhia NPP; Nuclear Nonproliferation


E16/MIN – 24/03/21