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U.N. watchdog says nuclear accident must be avoided in Ukraine: "We are playing with fire"

Calls grow for security zone around nuclear plant
UN inspectors call for security zone around Ukrainian nuclear plant 01:23

United Nations – The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief told world leaders at the U.N. Security Council Tuesday that Ukrainian technicians who are operating the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant are "under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available." 

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made clear that the situation could "lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety."

"We know and we observed that the operators at the plant were operating under extremely challenging circumstances," said Grossi, adding that the Russian army was keeping military equipment and vehicles in the plant itself. 

"Our concrete recommendation in this regard is that the military vehicles and equipment that are currently present in buildings inside nuclear buildings on the site be removed, so as not to interfere with normal operation of the nuclear safety and security systems," the IAEA chief said.  

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres Addresses The U.N. Security Council
Members of the U.N. Security Council attend a meeting on the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine at the United Nations Headquarters on Sept. 6, 2022 in New York City.  Getty Images

While the nuclear plant is being operated by Ukrainian technicians, it has been occupied by Russian forces since early March. 

"The Ukrainian staff are incredibly brave, they are effectively being held hostage by the Russian operation of the power plant, and ... Russia needs to withdraw," Barbara Woodward, U.K. ambassador to the U.N., told reporters.  

"Russia is playing Russian roulette with a nuclear incident," Woodward added. 

A convoy of IAEA inspectors arrived Sept. 1 at the plant with the mission to prevent a nuclear accident. Two permanent IAEA inspectors are now stationed at the plant.

"We join the director general in commending the staff at all nuclear facilities for their endurance and resilience in keeping the sites running in a safe and secure way," said Jeffrey DeLaurentis, U.S. ambassador for special political affairs. 

DeLaurentis called for Russian troops to leave the plant and give "full control of the facility to Ukraine."

The dangers of an accident at Europe's largest plant have increased by the week, ever since the Ukraine war moved close to Zaporizhzhia. 

Fighting around the plant has continued, and parts of the plant have been damaged, according to a new IAEA report released Monday. The 52-page report states that the "integrity of the building has been violated from the shelling."

"Any further escalation affecting the six-reactor plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with potentially grave radiological consequences for human health and the environment in Ukraine and elsewhere," the report reads.  

U.N. inspectors examined the damage that the shelling has inflicted on the plant, and "noted with concern that the shelling could have impacted safety-related structures, systems and components, and could have caused safety-significant impacts, loss of lives and personnel injuries," according to the report. 

"While past events had not yet triggered a nuclear emergency, they represented a constant threat to nuclear safety and security because critical safety functions (containment of the radioactivity and cooling in particular) could be impacted," the report reads. 

On Monday, the plant was completely knocked off Ukraine's electricity grid after its last transmission line was disconnected because of a fire caused by shelling, the Associated Press reports.

Only one of the plant's six reactors was operational as of Sept. 3, according to the AP. That reactor was generating the power the plant needs for its own safety in so-called "island mode."

The reactors at Zaporizhzhia have had to rely on back-up generators previously on several occasions as a result of the fighting around the plant.   

"Any damage, whether intentional or not, to Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia – or to any other nuclear facility in Ukraine – could spell catastrophe, not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told diplomats at the meeting,  

"Any action that might endanger the physical integrity, safety or security of the nuclear plant is unacceptable," Guterres said. "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."

Grossi also called for continuous radiation monitoring. He said that the fact that the IAEA was able to inspect the facilities in real time, rather than after an accident, was "unprecedented."

"Russia should stop nuclear blackmail," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the U.N. Security Council in late August in a remote address. 

Since that time, both Ukraine and Russia have traded blame over shelling at and near the plant. The IAEA report did not accuse either side, but called for a perimeter. 

"We are playing with fire," Grossi told diplomats Tuesday.

"A nuclear power plant without external power supply may lose crucial functionalities. Without this, we could have a very serious accident," Grossi said. "The IAEA recommends that the off-site power supply line redundancy be re-established and available at any time for this to be possible. Military activities that may affect the power supply systems must be stopped immediately."

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