KYIV, Ukraine – Workers at Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant reconnected it to the country’s electricity grid on Friday, restoring a flow of electricity to neighboring cities and paving the way for a visit next week by the United Nation’s atomic watchdog.
The repairs to restore energy transmission at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant eased fears, at least temporarily, of a potentially disastrous breakdown that experts said could result from a prolonged disruption. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that emergency generators were needed to maintain operation of the plant’s crucial functions while the power station was temporarily cut off from the grid.
The giant nuclear plant, which is the largest in Europe and is located in territory currently occupied by Russian forces, has become a source of acute worry over a potential civilian disaster but also a pawn in the military conflict, a six-month war in which Russia is seeking to seize Ukrainian land.
Zelensky has underscored the risk of a nuclear accident as an urgent reason for demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located, and the surrounding region of Zaporizhzhia.
Russia, which has been laying groundwork for a staged referendum and planned annexation of the region, wants the international inspectors to observe a nuclear facility that the Kremlin claims is functioning safely due to the presence of Russian troops.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister called his country’s forces only guarantee against a “Chernobyl scenario” – a somewhat ironic position given that Moscow was in charge when the Chernobyl reactor meltdown occurred in 1986.
Kyiv wants the International Atomic Energy Agency visit to highlight the dangers of Russia’s continued occupation of the facility, which temporarily lost power on Thursday after fires damaged its last functioning transmission line.
“The IAEA and other international organizations must act much faster than they’re acting now,” Zelensky said in an address on Thursday. “Because every minute the Russian troops stay at the nuclear power plant is a risk of a global radiation disaster.”
Negotiations surrounding the visit are nearing completion following a crescendo of international alarm in response to near-daily chaos at the plant, which has included intermittent shelling. Explosions and fires in or around the plant have resulted in the death of two workers, the temporary disconnection of electricity to and from the plant, and mass power outages in the surrounding area.
The IAEA visit is scheduled to occur next week, an adviser to Ukraine’s energy minister told a local news outlet Friday, but crucial details remain to be worked out including plans to guarantee the safety of inspectors while they are working in an active war zone.
In recent days, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has led discussions on the visit with IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and the Russian government. In an apparent concession, Russia has agreed to let the IAEA delegation arrive first in Ukraine’s capital before visiting the plant, Kuleba said in an interview at Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
“They had always insisted that if you wanted to visit an occupied territory, you have to enter from Russia or through Russia,” he said.
But before the visit can be finalized, Russia and Ukraine must resolve two “outstanding issues,” said Ukraine’s top diplomat. The first is how to ensure the safety of visitors entering an active war zone.
The second involves determining which news media can cover the visit. Kuleba said he was not initially inclined to permit reporters to be present for the visit but he said the Russian government pressed the issue and warned of a potential propaganda campaign.
“The Russians said, ‘We’ll let you in, if you agree that Russian media will cover,'” he said. “The Russians want to send Russian media to the power plant to welcome the delegation and to stage a propaganda show,” Kuleba said, adding: “I’m sure they are doing a lot of cleaning in all senses of the word.”
Ukrainian officials said their biggest fear was that the IAEA visit would bless the safety protocols being followed at the plant, and by consequence seem to legitimize Russia’s occupying presence there.
“This is the worst-case scenario,” Kuleba said. “This is what we shouldn’t allow because this will mean that the Russians will stay and that will mean that the Russians will continue attempts to disconnect the power plant from the Ukrainian grid.”
Nuclear security experts say the main goal of the IAEA visit is to document and explain the primary risks at the plant and offer solutions for how the international community can address them.
Scott Roecker, a vice president at Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the Russian government has unique capability to support nuclear development but has “demonstrated that they are not responsible stewards.”
Grossi, who has sought to maintain an evenhanded rapport with both Ukraine and Russia, said an IAEA team on the ground will help “stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation there.”
“We can’t afford to lose any more time,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
One of his top priorities is ensuring a secure off-site power supply is available for the plant, Grossi said.
When Ukraine’s nuclear plant lost power on Thursday, emergency diesel generators were activated and later a nearby geothermal plant provided electricity, the Ukrainian state power company said.
On Friday, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company thanked its workers for reconnecting the plant to the grid, saying the employees are holding the “radiation safety” of the “whole of Europe on their shoulders.”