What to Know About Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant Seized by Russia

The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is "extremely concerned" by Russia's takeover of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, due to the severing of communications and the violation of the main elements of nuclear safety and security.

Rafael Mariano Grossi highlighted the fact that staff at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe are now under the control of the commander of the Russian forces that took control of the site last week.

Ukraine reports that any action of plant management—including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units—requires prior approval of the commander.

In a statement from the IAEA, 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.

"In order to be able to operate the plant safely and securely, management and staff must be allowed to carry out their vital duties in stable conditions without undue external interference or pressure."

This is a reference to the seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security, with pillar three stated to be: "The operating staff must be able to fulfill their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure."

Ukraine has reported that the Russian forces at the site have switched off some mobile networks and the internet so that reliable information from the site cannot be obtained through the normal channels of communication.

This was confirmed by Ukraine's nuclear regulator on Sunday when they informed the IAEA that it had started having major problems in communicating with staff operating the Zaporizhzhya. It added that the phone lines, as well as emails and fax, were not functioning anymore, but mobile phone communication was still possible, but with poor quality.

The IAEA added that this violates the seventh pillar of nuclear safety and security: "There must be reliable communications with the regulator and others."

What Is the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant?

With a gross power production capacity of 6,000 megawatts, Zaporizhzhya is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, and the fifth-largest nuclear power plant in the world, according to Power Technology.

Zaporizhzhya, located in Enerhodar, Ukraine, is comprised of six pressurized water reactors which use heat to create steam that drives turbines generating electricity. The plant, which has been operational since 1984, now accounts for 40 percent of the total electricity generated by Ukrainian nuclear power plants and one-fifth of the total amount of electricity generated in the country.

The first five units of Zaporizhzhya were commissioned between 1984 and 1989, with 1988 the only year in this period that didn't see a reactor commissioned at the plant.

As a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, the following year the Supreme Council of Ukraine ordered a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power units in Ukraine, resulting in the suspension of construction work on Unit 6 of the facility.

However, by 1995 Power Technology reports that severe winters and increasing demand for electrical power led to the moratorium being lifted and the construction of Unit 6 continuing.

Unit 6 was grid-connected in 1995 and became the first nuclear reactor unit in an independent Ukraine.

Addressing the current situation at Zaporizhzhya, Grossi stressed the importance of operating staff being able to rest to carry out their jobs safely and securely.

Grossi added once again that he is prepared to travel to Ukraine to secure the commitment to the safety and security of all Ukraine's nuclear power plants from the parties of the conflict in the country.

Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant
An image of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. Russia took over the largest nuclear plant in Europe last week leading to developments that have the director general of the IAEA "extremely concerned." Lumppini/GETTY