In several phone calls between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron, president of France, the two presidents have been trading accusations of blame over safety concerns at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine which has been a focal point of fighting in recent weeks.

Ukraine claims that Russia is carrying out attacks on the plant as part of a false-flag operation to blame Ukraine. The Russians are claiming that repeated Ukrainian attacks on the plant’s facilities, including radioactive waste storage, are fraught with catastrophic consequences, and are calling for ‘non-politicised action’, with the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to resolve the matter.

In its statement, the French presidency said the occupation by Russian troops of the plant was what was putting it at risk, and asked that Russian forces withdraw their heavy and light weapons and that IAEA’s recommendations be followed to ensure safety at the site.

Disconnection of Zaporizhzhia 

The electricity supply to the plant has been cut with increasing frequency over the past few weeks, including at least three times in the last few days. Last week Ukraine’s nuclear power operator, Energoatom, said that the last operating reactor at the plant had been shut down and the plant ‘completely stopped’ after all its power lines were disconnected as a result of fighting in the area. It had been operating in island mode for several days, disconnected from the grid, generating electricity for the sites crucial cooling systems from the only remaining reactor in operation, unit 6.

On 10 September Energoatom said that one of the power lines had been restored that day, during Saturday night, allowing plant operators to shut down the last reactor. It said the risk of continued damage to the supply line remained high and that it did not want to risk the plant being powered by diesel generators, “the duration of which is limited by the technological resource and the amount of available diesel fuel”.

On 9 September the IAEA reported that the power infrastructure feeding the city of Enerhodar, home to the NPP’s operators and their families, has been destroyed by shelling of the switchyard at the city’s thermal power plant, leading to a complete power black-out in Enerhodar, and as a consequence no running water, no power, and no sewage.

Given the increased and continued shelling, it saw little likelihood of re-establishing reliable offsite power to the ZNPP, especially as the shelling continually and repeatedly damages the power infrastructure.

With the only remaining operating reactor shut down the entire power plant would then be reliant on emergency diesel generators for ensuring vital nuclear safety and security functions. Furthermore, said IAEA, there are indications that, with the increasingly dire circumstances that the people of Energodar are facing, there is a significant risk of an impact on the availability of essential staff on site to continue to safely and securely operate the plant.

IAEA update 100

On 11 September a back-up power line to Zaporizhzhya was restored. The restoration of a 330 kV reserve line – which connects Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to the Ukrainian network through the switchyard of a thermal power station in Enerhodar – enabled the ZNPP to shut down its last operating reactor. This reactor had over the past week provided the ZNPP with power after the facility was disconnected from the grid. With the line restoration, electricity needed for nuclear safety at the ZNPP once again comes from the external grid.

IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi welcomed the latest developments regarding the ZNPP’s power status – which were also confirmed by Ukraine – but he stressed that the situation at the plant remained precarious after weeks of shelling in the area that damaged vital power infrastructure.

“I remain gravely concerned about the situation at the plant” he said “which remains in danger as long as any shelling continues. To address this serious situation, consultations have begun on the urgent need to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone at Zaporizhzhya.”

IAEA experts present at the site of the ZNPP since 1 September – as part of the team led by Mr Grossi to establish the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) at the facility – were informed by senior Ukrainian plant staff that reactor unit 6 was shut down at 03:41am local time (02:41am CET). The other five units were already in cold shutdown and the plant is currently not providing any electricity to the grid. ZNPP has been held by Russian forces since early March, but its Ukrainian staff are continuing to operate the plant.

In addition to the restored 330 kV line, work is under way to bring back other power lines. The ZNPP also has 20 emergency diesel generators available with supplies for at least 10 days of operation. Although the Enerhodar thermal power station remains down, the now restored power line provides the ZNPP with power from the Ukrainian grid transported through the station’s switchyard.

ZNPP operating staff plan to bring unit 6 to a cold shutdown state, which can take about 30 hours. The ZNPP will still need electricity for safety-related functions, but this will require only one diesel generator per reactor is needed.

In a report to the United Nations Security Council, Mr Grossi noted that ZNPP on several occasions “lost, fully or partially, the off-site power supply as a result of military activities in the area”. He recommended that off-site power supply line diversity and redundancy “should be re-established and available at any time, and that all military activities that may affect the power supply systems end.”