VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. atomic watchdog hopes to deploy around 15 to 20 staff to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities if an agreement with Kyiv and Moscow is reached on ensuring safety there, a U.S. congressman said on Thursday after a meeting with the watchdog’s chief.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi has called on both countries to urgently agree a framework to ensure Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl and Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, are safe and secure.
Grossi has, however, so far failed to obtain that agreement. In a video statement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh_0iLhPxBo on Wednesday he said it would include assistance such as “on-site presence of IAEA experts at different facilities”. He has declined to provide specifics of his agency’s plans.
After meeting Grossi in Vienna on Thursday while leading a U.S. congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission on Ukraine, Representative Stephen Lynch elaborated on those plans and the negotiations.
“He wants to protect his people, so he wants a safety guarantee that he can put people on the ground there, maybe 15-20 people,” Lynch told Reuters in an interview at Vienna airport with fellow representatives Lori Trahan and Mark Green.
“We had an opportunity to sit with him and his staff to try to formulate a joint effort to get him in there and his staff in there so that they can make a first-hand assessment of how those employees (at Russian-held nuclear facilities) are being treated, how are the operators are being handled.”
Russia last month seized the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl next to the now-defunct power plant that in 1986 was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The single shift of staff who happened to be on duty when it was taken was relieved only this week.
A building at Zaporizhzhia separate from but close to the row of reactors caught fire after being hit by what Grossi said appeared to be a Russian military projectile earlier this month. Russia, which blamed the fire on Ukrainian saboteurs, controls the site, which like Chernobyl is operated by Ukrainian staff.
“Right now they’re operating under gunpoint,” Lynch said of staff at Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia.
Having originally suggested a trilateral meeting in Chernobyl, Grossi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba separately in Turkey two weeks ago. There has been little obvious progress since.
“I think the resistance (to an agreement) is shared between the Russians and the Ukrainians,” Lynch said, adding that since there were still clashes near Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, Russia could see an agreement as interfering with its invasion.
“If we were to somehow carve out an agreement where IAEA or the U.N. were to take control of those facilities, in the Ukrainian eyes that might legitimize the facts on the ground that Russian troops are now in control of those facilities within the territorial grounds of Ukraine, so there’s resistance there,” he said.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Frances Kerry)