The nuclear chief of the United Nations has warned that Europe's largest nuclear power plant, located in Ukraine, is "completely out of control" and issued an urgent request to Russia and Ukraine to allow experts to visit the complex as soon as possible to prevent a nuclear accident.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stated that the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant in the city of Enerhodar, which Russian troops seized in early March, shortly after their February 24 invasion of Ukraine, is deteriorating daily.
At the plant, "every principle of nuclear safety has been violated," he claimed.
"The stakes are extraordinarily grave and perilous."
Mr. Grossi listed numerous violations of the plant's safety and added that it is located "in an active war zone" close to Russian-controlled territory.
The physical integrity of the plant has not been protected, he claimed, noting bombardment during the start of the war, when it was seized, and ongoing reports from Ukraine and Russia accusing each other of attacking Zaporizhzhia.
Mr. Grossi described a "paradoxical situation" in which the facility is under Russian administration. Still, its Ukrainian workforce continues to run its nuclear operations, resulting in inevitable moments of conflict and suspected violence.
While the IAEA has some interactions with workers, he described them as "faulty" and "patchy."
Mr. Grossi stated that the supply chain for equipment and spare parts has been disrupted, so "we cannot be certain that the plant is receiving everything it requires."
The IAEA must also conduct vital inspections to protect the security of nuclear materials, "and there is a great deal of nuclear material to be inspected," he said.
Mr. Grossi stated, "When you put this all together, you have a list of things that should never occur in a nuclear facility."
The Russian annexation of Zaporizhzhia rekindled fears that the largest of Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors could be damaged, triggering another catastrophe similar to the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world's worst nuclear disaster, which occurred approximately 65 miles north of Kyiv.
Soon after the invasion, Russian forces controlled the heavily contaminated location but returned control to the Ukrainians at the end of March.
Mr. Grossi visited Chernobyl on April 27 and tweeted that the safety level was "like a blinking red light."
However, he stated that the IAEA established a "mission of assistance" at Chernobyl at that time that "has been tremendously successful so far."
Mr. Grossi stated that the IAEA must travel to Zaporizhzhia, as it did to Chernobyl, to determine what is happening there, to conduct repairs and inspections, and "to prevent a nuclear accident from occurring."
The head of the IAEA stated that he and his team require protection to reach the facility and the prompt cooperation of Russia and Ukraine.
He said that each side wants the international mission to go from a different location, which is understandable given territorial integrity and political considerations. However, he noted something more pressing: sending the IAEA team to Zaporizhia.
Mr. Grossi stated, "The IAEA's presence will deter any act of violence against this nuclear power plant."
As an international public servant and the leader of a global organization, I am pleading with both parties to allow this mission to continue.
Mr. Grossi was in New York on Monday to deliver the keynote address at the long-delayed high-level meeting to review the historic 50-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and attain a nuclear-free world.
In the interview, the IAEA director-general also discussed efforts to renew the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and foreign powers, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018 and the Biden administration has been attempting to restore.
Mr. Grossi stated, "efforts are ongoing to schedule yet another meeting or round to explore potential avenues for reaching an agreement."
According to him, the meeting "could be imminent."
Monday at the NPT review conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Iran "has either been unwilling or unable" to accept a deal to return to the 2015 agreement aimed at reining its nuclear program.
Mr. Grossi stated that "there are significant differences between the negotiating parties" and that Iran must resolve significant verification difficulties relating to its past activities.
"It is not impossible, but it is difficult," he remarked.
He stated that some IAEA inspections would continue if the nuclear pact known as the JCPOA is not extended.
However, the JCPOA offers increased transparency and inspections, which he described as "extremely important and essential" due to the breadth and depth of Iran's nuclear program.
Mr. Grossi emphasized that Iran must create trust and confidence by cooperating with the IAEA, addressing its questions, and enabling its inspectors to go anywhere they need to.
He stated, "Promises and nice words will not suffice."
On a separate matter, Mr. Grossi stated that the agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom to provide Australia with nuclear reactors to power its submarines necessitates an agreement with the IAEA to ensure the same amount of nuclear material is on board the vessel when it departs and returns.
He stated that Australia has not chosen what type of vessel it will acquire; thus, real talks cannot commence despite preliminary discussions.
Because it is a military vessel, Mr. Grossi explained, "many confidential and information protection measures must be incorporated into any such agreement, making it technologically complex."