Ukraine, Russia and control of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

06 October 2022

​Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree to transfer Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to Russian control and oversight on Wednesday. But Ukraine calls it an illegal attempt to take control of the plant and says the Russian president’s decree is "null and void".

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (Image: IAEA)

The background

Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear plant in Europe, with six reactors. It has been under the control of the Russian military since early March but has continued to be operated by its Ukrainian staff. It is near the frontline of the war in territory which President Putin has said has been annexed by Russia.

It has been damaged by shelling during the conflict and all six reactors have been shut down. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has been leading efforts to establish a safety and security zone at, and around, the plant. He travelled to Ukraine on Wednesday for talks that had been intended to focus on establishing such a zone, with a visit to Russia also planned.

What does President Putin’s decree say?

The decree says that after the accession of the Zaporizhzhia region to the Russian Federation, a new company the Operating Organisation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP is created with the "status of a nuclear energy operating organisation to operate and/or discontinue the operation of nuclear power facilities at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, with its own resources or with the involvement of other organisations".

It says that existing licences will "continue to be effective until new permits are issued in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation that regulate the use of nuclear energy". This also applies to nuclear energy work permits issued to existing employees at the site.

The decree adds that the Russian government "was instructed to ensure the acceptance into federal ownership of the nuclear power facilities … as well as other ancillary property necessary for its operation, as well as to take the required action to establish a federal state unitary enterprise, Zaporozhye NPP, in order to ensure the safety and security of the power plant’s nuclear energy facilities".

"In addition, the Government was instructed to develop the specific regulations, effective until 1 January 2028, for the Operating Organisation of the Zaporozhye NPP joint-stock company’s use of financial, material and other resources necessary to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities, radiation sources, storage facilities for nuclear materials and radioactive substances, and radioactive waste storage facilities, and for the proper handling of nuclear materials and radioactive substances. Also, the Government is to determine, for the period until 1 January 2028, the specifics of the organisation and implementation of federal state oversight in the field of the use of nuclear energy and industrial safety in relation to the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant."

What has Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom said?

It published a statement on its website about the new arrangements, saying that the Operating Organisation of Zaporizhzhia NPP would be headed by Oleg Romanenko, who was previously chief engineer of the Balakovo nuclear power plant. (Balakovo, like Zaporizhzhia, has VVER V-320 pressurised water reactors built in the early 1980s). It said the new arrangement was "designed to ensure the safe operation of the NPP and the professional activities of the existing plant personnel with the support Rosenergoatom".

It also said that "another task will be to normalise the situation within the team" with Romanenko saying "all NPP employees will be employed in the staff of the new operating organisation with the preservation of wages and social guarantees. In parallel, the state of the station will be assessed and the damaged infrastructure will be restored, taking into account the experience of operating nuclear power units in Russia".

What has Ukraine said?

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine statement said the “illegal attempt” to take the plant under its operational control was the latest in "a long list of crimes and violations of international law committed by Russia". "We consider the respective decree of the Russian president as null and void" and "strongly condemn this crime that further increases risks and threats in the sphere of nuclear security caused by the Russian occupation of the ZNPP".

It calls on the European Union, G7 states "and other partners to immediately consider imposition of sanctions against Russian state corporation Rosatom, affiliated companies and institutions as well as other key players of the Russian nuclear energy sphere".

It also says: "We call on the member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency to restrict cooperation in the framework of any projects with Russia that resorts to undisguised nuclear blackmail of the entire world. We expect a clear position and proactive role in these issues of the IAEA director general."

The statement concludes: "We demand from the Russian side to ensure safety and inviolability of citizens of Ukraine who continue to perform critical functions at the nuclear power plant. We reiterate the urgent need to put maximum efforts of all members of the international community aimed at ensuring de-occupation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP and its return under the control of Ukraine as the only possible way to eliminate current threats in the sphere of nuclear security."

What about Energoatom, which has been operating Zaporizhzhia?

Energoatom is Ukraine’s energy giant, and operator of the country's nuclear power plants, including Zaporizhzhia. In a statement it said the Russian president’s decree was "worthless, absurd and inadequate" and said “Ukraine and the entire civilised world know that the Zaporizhzhia NPP will continue to work in Ukraine, in accordance with Ukrainian legislation, in the Ukrainian energy system, in Energoatom".

It paid tribute to the Ukrainian nuclear power plant workers "who have been heroically working under occupation for more than seven months … to ensure the nuclear and radiation safety of Ukraine and Europe". Since the existing director general of the nuclear power plant, Ihor Murashov, was detained by Russian forces on Friday before being released into Ukrainian-controlled territory on Monday, Energoatom says it has transferred administrative control of Zaporizhzhia to its headquarters in Kyiv.

What has the International Atomic Energy Agency said?

The director general of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, was already planning to travel to Ukraine and Russia this week to seek agreement on creating a safety and security zone at, and around, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The IAEA issued a statement on Wednesday evening saying that following the announcement of the Russian move "to supervise operations" at the plant he would "engage in consultations with the relevant authorities".

The statement said Grossi had "repeatedly expressed grave concern about the extremely stressful and challenging working conditions at the ZNPP during the current military conflict". One of the seven nuclear safety and security pillars states that "operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure".

There are plans to restart one of the reactors

The IAEA statement also said that its experts at the site had learned that unit 5 was planned to be restarted at reduced power to produce steam and heat for the needs of the plant. All six reactors are currently all in cold shutdown.

The IAEA statement did not say how the decision to restart the reactor had been reached, but said "it will take some time to complete all preparations, including those related to necessary systems and equipment, before reactor operations can resume".

Researched and written by World Nuclear News