Ukraine backs UN call for nuclear plant safe zone

A Ukrainian Emergency Ministry rescuer attends an exercise in the city of Zaporizhzhia on 17 August 2022, in case of a possible nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant located near the city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has welcomed calls by the UN nuclear agency for a safety protection zone at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

The plant has been occupied by Russia since the start of the war and it has come under repeated attack since, with both sides blaming each other.

The UN says that the shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear power station must end immediately.

Shelling could cause unlimited release of radioactive materials, it said.

In a report published on Tuesday, following last week’s much-awaited visit, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the presence of Russian military equipment on site could undermine its security.

Shelling continued while a 14-strong IAEA team visited the site last week and its head, Rafael Grossi, warned at the time of a very real risk of nuclear disaster. Although most of the team left the plant after two days, it said two of its officials would remain there on a permanent basis.

Mr Zelensky said he would support the safety zone if it aimed to demilitarise the territory of the nuclear plant. Mr Zelensky said the report noted the presence of Russian military hardware on the territory of the plant and referred to pressure on employees, alongside “clear references to the Russian military occupation”.

The plant lies on the southern bank of the River Dnieper, across the water from Ukrainian-held towns and military positions.

On Tuesday, Russia accused Kyiv of hitting the area three times in 24 hours. Ukraine says Russian forces have used the plant as a shield from which to fire on nearby cities, although Russia insists it is guarding the site.

In its report, the nuclear agency highlighted the “extremely stressful conditions” facing the 907 Ukrainian staff working there under Russian military control.

However, the IAEA is careful not to apportion blame to either side.

Zaporizhzhia graphic

The IAEA detailed the damage to the plant and said that while continued shelling had not yet triggered a nuclear emergency, it did present a constant threat to safety that “may lead to radiological consequences with great safety significance”.

There was an urgent need for “interim measures” to prevent a nuclear accident caused by military action, it added, saying all relevant parties would have to agree to a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” being set up to avoid further damage.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting after the publication of the IAEA’s report to discuss the situation in Zaporizhzhia.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “as a first step, Russian and Ukrainian forces must commit not to engage in any military activity towards the plant site or from the plant site”.

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