IAEA concern over communication issues at Zaporozhe

07 March 2022

Ukraine updates, 7 March: 
• Ukraine regulator says nuclear power plants continue to operate
• Radiation levels remain within normal range
• IAEA warns about phone and internet problems at Zaporozhe
• Russia says meeting with Ukraine and IAEA director general about nuclear safety ‘could be useful’ and held ‘virtually or in third country’
• IAEA director general hopes to make progress on meeting during consultations 'in next few hours'

Two of Zaporozhe's six units are operating at, or near, full power (Image: Energoatom)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had been told by Ukraine's nuclear inspectorate that phone lines, email and fax were not functioning at Zaporozhe nuclear power plant, with only some poor quality mobile phone service possible, so "reliable information from the site cannot be obtained through normal channels of communication".

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) also reported that it could only communicate by email with staff at Chernobyl, which Russian forces took control of last month.

In a statement published in the afternoon of Sunday 6 March, SNRIU said that safety parameters at Chernobyl remained within safety limits, although some monitoring equipment was out of order, and warned that some safety measures were not being observed, such as lack of "use of air locks, changing of clothing and footwear when visiting ‘dirty’ areas, decontamination" as well as the military equipment moving across the site.

In an update on Monday 7 March, the SNRIU said that at Zaporozhe "there are no violations of NPP safe operation limits and conditions. Radioactive situation meets established norms. Systems of NPP physical protection work in normal mode. NPP security divisions and physical protection services are on high alert".

Of the six reactors, unit 1 is in planned maintenance until mid-2022, unit 2 is operating at full capacity, unit 3 is in a cold shutdown state, unit 4 is operating at near full capacity, unit 5 is cooling down for a cold reserve state, and unit 6 is in cold shutdown.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi expressed "grave concern" that it had been reported by Ukraine that any action by management at the plant, including technical operation of the six reactor units, required approval of the Russian commander.

"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," Director General Grossi said.

"The deteriorating situation regarding vital communications between the regulator and the Zaporozhe NPP is also a source of deep concern, especially during an armed conflict that may jeopardise the country’s nuclear facilities at any time. Reliable communications between the regulator and the operator are a critical part of overall nuclear safety and security," he said.

The IAEA said that it welcomed the news from SNRIU that the operational staff at Zaporozhe were now rotating in three shifts, but it said at Chernobyl, the staff of more than 200 technical staff and guards have not been able to rotate since 23 February.

Grossi said last week that well-rested staff were needed "in any activity, but particularly here where you have to be very focused and not make mistakes ... this can lead to mistakes".

In Sunday’s statement he said: "I call on those in effective control of Chernobyl to immediately allow staff there to rotate for the sake of safety and security."

IAEA hopes for progress on safety talks

Grossi offered on Friday to travel to Chernobyl to meet with both sides to secure commitments to the safety and security of the nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

According to Russia's representative to the IAEA,  Mikhail Ulyanov, who had discussions with the director general on Monday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron in a conversation on Sunday "that a meeting between Russia, Ukraine and the IAEA on safety and security at Ukrainian nuclear facilities, as suggested by the IAEA Director General, could be useful. It can be arranged virtually or in a third country".

Speaking on Monday at 13:00 in Vienna (12:00 GMT) in a media briefing, Grossi said that he was more focused on the substance of any talks, rather than the location, and said that he hoped he could make progress on arranging the talks during "consultations in the next few hours".

He said that the urgency of the need for a commitment had been shown by a number of "episodes" over the past few days which had not involved a release of radiation, but which had caused problems and which made it clear that there needs to be a commitment "to not go anywhere near nuclear facilities when it comes to military operations".

One of those episodes involved the bombing around the location of the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, a nuclear research facility. In an update on Monday afternoon the SNRIU said a sub-station, air conditioning units and the outside of the building itself had been damaged, although "the radiological situation at the site is normal".

In comments to the IAEA's board of directors, also on Monday, the IAEA director general said: "We must avert a nuclear accident in Ukraine. Let us not hide behind 'all' or 'nothing-at-all' solutions. This time, if there is a nuclear accident, the cause will not be a tsunami brought on by mother nature. Instead, it will be the result of human failure to act when we knew we could, and we knew we should."

Asked at the media briefing if these comments suggested the sides were placing conditions on the talks, Grossi said they were not, but he said it would not be surprising if they wanted to try to "season" any agreement with other issues, and he wanted to stress that his focus was solely on nuclear safety.

As an example of the sort of issues that needed addressing, he said some pieces of equipment were needed at nuclear plants as part of their normal operations, so a method of delivering them needed to be agreed given the current situation and the wider supply chain issues.

The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group held an extraordinary meeting about the Ukraine situation on Sunday, with the participation of officials from the IAEA, SNRIU and the West European Nuclear Regulators' Association. It said it supported the IAEA's efforts to seek an agreement on the safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine and called for SNRIU to have its control over Ukraine's nculear facilities and materials restored.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News