IAEA chief's concern over welfare of Ukraine nuclear staff

02 March 2022

Ukraine updates, 3 March: 

• Ukraine says nuclear power plants continue to operate normally
• Ukraine asks IAEA and NATO to help protect nuclear sites
• IAEA board reported to have voted in favour of resolution on Ukraine
• IAEA chief says in discussions with both sides over providing assistance
• EU says conflict increases risk of illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials
• Ukraine says Chernobyl staff working under 'psychological pressure and morally exhausted'

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at a media briefing on Wednesday (Image: IAEA)

Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl exclusion area and plant last week, with the Ukrainian staff who were on shift at the time since staying on site to ensure the safety of the facility. The Russian military has also taken control of the area around Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant - Zaporozhe - with, according to the IAEA, the Ukrainian staff continuing to operate the reactors.

In a joint statement published on Thursday 3 March, Ukraine's energy minister, its nuclear regulator and nuclear power plant operator Energoatom, called on NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to bring in 30km exclusion zones around nuclear power plants and introduce no-fly zones.

The joint statement also said that the Chernobyl personnel, "who have been detained by the Russian military without rotation for seven days, are under psychological pressure and morally exhausted and as a result have limited opportunities to communicate, move and carry out full-fledged routine and repair work, which leads to radiation regime disruptions and endangers their lives and health".

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that the welfare of the workers seeking to ensure the safety of the nuclear power plants was an important part of his discussions with Russian and Ukrainian officials.

"I say this because, as in any other work, you have shifts so people can go home and rest and it has been challenging to ensure there is a full change of shifts. 

"It does not mean people are working non-stop without sleeping or eating, but in some cases we know that people have to stay at the plant, and continue working the next day and not take the necessary time off and things like this.

"In any activity, but particularly here where you have to be very focused and not make mistakes ... this can lead to mistakes. What we are trying in our discussions with Ukraine and Russia, is to facilitate this to make sure things like this do not happen."

He added that even if the staff had the usual rest breaks and chances to go home, they would still be operating in a stressful situation given what is happening in the country and when "their families may be in danger and they may have lost people they love".

The nuclear staff in Ukraine “really deserve our praise”, he said, adding: "The issue of having staff which are well rested, competent and rested there is very, very important. It is not only a humanitarian issue, it is also a technical issue."

Operating staff at all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure, he added.

The director general repeated his warning against any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine's nuclear power plants, but he said the IAEA did not have the power to enforce a 30km safe zone around nuclear power plants, so was currently focusing on other measures to ensure the safety of the nuclear plants.

Lost data

In its later update on Wednesday 2 March, the IAEA said that the State Nuclear Regulator Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) had told it that it "maintained communications with the country’s nuclear power plants, which it said continued to operate as before. Radiation levels remained normal at all sites and there had been no reports of nuclear or radiological incidents, it said. Of Ukraine’s 15 reactors, more than half were operating at full capacity while others were undergoing scheduled maintenance or held in reserve, it added".

However the IAEA said that on Tuesday 1 March it lost the direct feed from the automated radiation monitoring stations at the Zaporozhe plant, the largest in Ukraine with six out of its 15 reactors. And on Wednesday it temporarily stopped receiving the same kind of data from the South Ukrainian plant, although the IAEA said that the SNRIU said this temporary loss was for technical reasons rather than related to military action. 

The IAEA said that Ukrainian specialists were seeking to determine the cause of the lost data transfer from the Zaporozhe plant and to restore it.

IAEA  emergency meeting

Meanwhile the board of the IAEA has been holding an emergency meeting about the situation in Ukraine. The European Union released its statement to the meeting, condemning Russia's actions and reiterating "the urgent call of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) of 27 February to cease unlawful activities in order to restore the control of the Ukrainian regulatory authority over all nuclear facilities and materials within Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders and to permit unhindered regular access of its staff to enable the operational staff to carry out their work without undue pressure, in order to ensure their continuing safe operation".

It also said the military action "has led to an increased risk of illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials, and of sabotage of nuclear material or nuclear facilities".

The Xinhua news agency reported that China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna, Wang Qun, told the same meeting that "nuclear safety and security are responsibilities of sovereign states", and said "relevant parties should act prudently to avoid unintended nuclear safety and security accidents, and the IAEA should properly handle the issue of nuclear safeguards in Ukraine in consideration of the country's security situation".

Wang also urged the relevant parties to respect the independence and authority of the IAEA and avoid politicising the agency's affairs and said China continued to monitor developments closely and supported efforts towards de-escalation and political settlement.

Although the result of the vote has not been officially announced, Reuters reported on 3 March, citing diplomats as sources, that the IAEA board had voted in favour of the resolution criticising Russia and calling on it to let Ukraine control all its nuclear facilities, with 26 of the 35 member countries voting in favour, and two votes against.

Russia's Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter that the resolution on "nuclear security in Ukraine contains intentional politically motivated lies and mistakes". 

He said the resolution called upon Russia "to create conditions for the competent Ukrainian authorities to regain full control over nuclear facilities. There is nothing to regain b/c these authorities exercise control in full".

He added that "we noted with satisfaction that countries whose populations taken together exceed a half of mankind refused to support the resolution which abuses the extremely important topic of nuclear safety and security for purely political purposes."

Reactors remain in operation

In its latest operational update, Ukraine's nuclear power operator Engeroatom said in a statement on 3 March, that as of 09:00 (07:00 GMT) all nuclear power plants in Ukraine were operating "safely and stably" and were providing the necessary volumes of electricity for the country's needs.

It said: "There are no violations of the conditions of safe operation. Radiation, fire and environmental conditions at NPPs and adjacent territories have not changed and are within current standards.

"The main equipment of the reactor compartments of power units, premises and buildings of power plants, the perimeters of protected areas and adjacent territories, as well as particularly important NPP facilities outside their protected areas are under increased supervision and control."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News