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Russia rejects UN proposal to demilitarise Zaporizhzhia power plant

On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the appeal made by UN Secretary General Guterres for withdrawal of military personnel and equipment from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and for “a safe perimeter of demilitarisation” to be established. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that such a step would somehow make the facility “more vulnerable”.

On Thursday, Ivan Nechayev, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the press that the proposal was unacceptable to Moscow. He also accused Kyiv of organising what he called provocations and of being unable to control nationalist armed groups.

“That is the very reason that the proposals [on demilitarisation] are unacceptable,” said Nechayev. “Implementing them would make the power station even more vulnerable.”

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant continues to be operated by Ukrainian engineers. Russia claims it is keeping troops at the plant to ensure its smooth running and security.

The plant has been struck several times already, increasing the risk of radioactive substances being released. Ukraine accuses Russia of being responsible for the shelling and also for using the plant as a shield from behind which it is shelling Ukrainian targets. Moscow in turn denies there are any heavy weapons in the plant and claims that it is Ukraine who has been shelling the facility, which Kyiv vehemently denies.

Nechayev also said a visit to the plant by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could take place in the near future, and that experts can then determine for themselves who had been shelling it. He also accused Kyiv and the West of planning a “provocation” on Friday. Kyiv, in turn, called these accusations cynical and untrue.

Washing machines, toilets, grain, and now electric power

Russia had also announced it could shut down Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after it had come under shelling. Ukrainian officials said the purpose of shutting down the plant would be to sever it from Ukraine’s power grid and switch it on to Russia’s, effectively stealing its power output.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power operator, warned that shutting down the plant would increase the risk of “a radiation disaster at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe”.

The agency said that if the plant is disconnected from the Ukrainian grid, should a power outage occur the plant would not be able to cool its nuclear fuel, potentially leading to a catastrophic meltdown. Shutting down a nuclear power plant is a complicated operation in itself, requiring the halting of nuclear chain reactions while protecting fuel from heating up and thereby causing a meltdown.

Reuters consulted Mark Hibbs, senior fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the possible risks of such an operation. According to Hibbs, “Should Russia take actions to force [the plant] off the Ukraine power system, that could threaten the operational safety of the station, in addition to escalating Ukraine’s energy crisis into the winter”.

It is not as though the Kremlin was not aware of the possible dangers of shutting down the plant. In a briefing, Igor Kirillov, head of Russia’s radioactive, chemical, and biological defence forces, said the plant’s back-up support systems had been damaged as a result of shelling. He also presented a slide, which showed how in the event of an accident, radioactive material would spread over Germany, Poland, and Slovakia.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, wrote on Twitter after speaking to the director general of the International Atomic Agency, who was ready to lead a delegation to the plant. Mr Kuleba says that he “emphasised the mission’s urgency to address nuclear security threats caused by Russia’s hostilities”.

In our call, IAEA Director General @rafaelmgrossi informed me that, responding to Ukraine’s invitation, he is ready to lead an IAEA delegation to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. I emphasized the mission’s urgency to address nuclear security threats caused by Russia’s hostilities.

— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) August 18, 2022

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