Nuclear Safety in Ukraine 'Seriously Jeopardized on Several Occasions'—IAEA

Nuclear safety in Ukraine has been "seriously jeopardized on several occasions" since the start of the Russian invasion in February, according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Grossi is preparing to head up a mission to experts to Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant this week in an effort to help avoid the potential of a nuclear accident while the country is in the midst of a war with Russia.

The IAEA team will be in Chornobyl starting on April 26, and it will deliver vital equipment that Ukrainian officials say the country needs for the safe and secure operation of its nuclear facilities.

The team, which will be made up of IAEA nuclear safety, security, and safeguards staff will also conduct several assessments at the site, which Russian forces held for five weeks before withdrawing on March 31.

"Over the past two months, nuclear safety in Ukraine has been seriously jeopardized on several occasions," Grossi said in a press release from the IAEA. "So far, the worst-case scenario has been avoided. But we need to intensify our efforts to make sure that remains the case. The IAEA will do everything it can to help prevent the conflict from also leading to a nuclear accident, in addition to the vast human suffering and major destruction it has already caused."

Grossi, who traveled to the South Ukraine nuclear power plant, another key nuclear site last month, added that the IAEA's presence at Chernobyl is of paramount importance for the agency's activities to support Ukraine as it seeks to restore regulatory control of the plant and ensure its safe and secure operation.

"The IAEA knows the Chernobyl [nuclear power plant] very well," Grossi said. "This local knowledge – coupled with our nuclear safety, security, and safeguards expertise – means that we can quickly establish exactly what needs to be done, and how and where."

"Based on our scientific measurements and technical evaluations, we will be able to better understand the radiological situation there," he added.

A team of experts will visit Chernobyl on the 36th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history to assess the site which was occupied by Russian forces for five weeks. Pictured, a general view of the "sarcophagus" covering the destroyed 4th power block of Chernobyl's nuclear power plant. SERGEI SUPINSKY/GETTY

This will be the first mission of this type to Chornobyl, the site of one of history's worst nuclear accidents in 1986. The accident occurred at the plant, which still sits in an exclusion zone with a near 19-mile radius, when uranium fuel in the reactor overheated and melted through the protective barriers.

Over 100 radioactive elements like plutonium, iodine, strontium, and cesium were scattered over a wide surrounding area and into the atmosphere, made worse when graphite blocks used as a moderating material in the reactor caught fire after air entered the reactor core.

The accident also occurred on April 26, meaning that the IAEA's visit will coincide with the 36th anniversary of the incident.

Since the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chernobyl, Ukraine has taken significant steps to re-establish the safe and secure operation of the site that now houses various radioactive waste management facilities. This included rotating staff for the first time in three weeks and re-establishing direct communications between the site and the nuclear regulator, down for over a month.

Newsweek previously reported that Grossi has been extremely concerned about Russian military activities around key Ukranian nuclear facilities since the beginning of its invasion of the country.

Commenting on Russia's takeover of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plan Grossi said: "I'm extremely concerned about these developments that were reported to me today. Just a few days after I presented the seven main elements of nuclear safety and security to the IAEA Board, several of them are already being compromised."

During his visit to Chernobyl, Grossi is expected to meet with staff to thank them for their courage, resilience, and determination in carrying out their important work duties during extremely difficult circumstances. Many of the staff were unable to go home and rest for several weeks, with some working non-stop at the site during the occupation by Russian forces.

"I look forward to being able to talk to the staff and to express my deep gratitude for everything they have achieved during such immensely stressful and challenging conditions," Grossi said. "They have been through more than we can imagine, and they deserve our full respect and admiration for preserving the safety and security of the site despite the dire situation."

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) points to a map of the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as he informs the press about the situation of nuclear power plants in Ukraine on March 4, 2022. JOE KLAMAR/GETTY