LONDON — The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has called for a protection zone around the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine. The plant was pushed to the frontline of the Kremlin-led invasion after Russian forces captured the compound in March.
Since then, there has been mounting concern that the fighting surrounding the plant, the largest in Europe, could lead to a nuclear disaster. Shelling has already damaged infrastructure at the plant, including a chemical facility and laboratory. Both Kyiv and Moscow have accused one another of attacking Zaporizhzhia.
Footage of bombs striking the plant sparked panic in the international community, conjuring up memories of one of the largest nuclear catastrophes in history, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — the remains of which lie more than 400 miles away from Zaporizhzhia.
“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” Rafael Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) chief, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
Last week, the U.N. watchdog visited the site, as agreed upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A team of 14 from the IAEA inspected the plant, and after two days all but two left. Those officials will remain at Zaporizhzhia on a permanent basis.
In a detailed report published by the IAEA, the agency cautioned that firing around the plant should stop to “avoid any further damages to the plant and associated facilities.” It added: “This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone around” Zaporizhzhia.
Inspectors reported having found Russian military equipment located inside buildings as well as nuclear waste. The New York Times had previously reported that staff at the plant had been “held hostage” and that some were “working at gunpoint.”
Inspectors confirmed that staff at the plant had been “working under unbelievable pressure” and that the “morale and the emotional state” of workers were “very low.” In a tweet following his speech to the U.N. Security Council, Grossi praised the workers at the plant for “keeping the sites running in a safe and secure way amid the conflict.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed calls by the IAEA and said he supported the protection zone if it aimed at demilitarizing the “territory of the nuclear power plant.”