Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, is. The plant is in Russian-occupied Ukraine and has been shelled repeatedly since March.
The situation is carefully monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency tasked with making sure nuclear facilities are safe and atomic material is only used for peaceful purposes. Its director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, recently inspected the site.
“Well, it’s an unprecedented thing, really, in so many ways,” Grossi told Lesley Stahl for this week’s 60 Minutes. “This place is at the front line which makes the whole thing so volatile and in need of an urgent action.”
Before the war the plant supplied 20% of Ukraine’s power. It’s now largely idle, but the reactors still need to be constantly cooled down with circulating water. If they over-heat it could lead to nuclear catastrophe within hours.
“The whole system is being cooled by electricity that’s coming in from the town, and there’s shelling,” Stahl said to Grossi. “So what would happen if that electricity went down?”
“What you have in that– in that situation is emergency systems that kick in. Like, diesel generators that you can have on a private property,” Grossi said. “And you don’t want the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, one of the biggest in the world, to be cooled with– basically an emergency system which is dependent on fuel. Because when your diesels are out of whatever you put in it to make them work, then what happens? Then you have a meltdown. Then you have a big radiological nuclear emergency or an accident, and this is what we are trying to prevent.”
“So this situation is totally precarious,” Stahl said.
“Totally,” Grossi responded. “Until we have this plant protected, the possibility of the nuclear catastrophe is there.”
That possible catastrophe could dwarf Chernobyl, a far smaller Ukrainian plant that famously blew up 36 years ago. In late August, after months of negotiating with both sides, Director General Grossi led his agency’s first mission into an active warzone to inspect the stability of the Zaporizhzhia site.
“And as we were approaching the last Ukrainian checkpoint, we started hearing shooting, quite heavy shooting. Very close, very close to us. So at that point, even the people at the checkpoint were running for shelter,” Grossi said. “I think it was a clear attempt to stop us. To say, ‘Go home. This is not your place.'”
But they proceeded. There were soldiers, tanks and armored trucks everywhere. The Russians are actually using the nuclear plant as their military base.
“When you went to visit, to inspect,” Stahl asked Grossi, “you could go anywhere?”
“Yes, you know, we are the IAEA,” Grossi said. “We are known as the nuclear watchdog.”
“Well, there are reports that you weren’t allowed into some crisis room there into the control room,” Stahl said. “Is that not true?”
“Well, there were areas that– where we were limited,” Grossi said. “But all the things we needed to see we could see.”
“You didn’t want to see the control room?” Stahl asked.
“Yeah, we did want to see it,” Grossi said. “But for us, what is important is to be looking at the essential nuclear operation of the plant. And this we could see.”
That included evidence that rockets had come dangerously close to the reactors and other sensitive areas. On a satellite photo, Grossi also pointed out the switchyard where the electricity comes in from the town.
“So this is where the external power comes to cool the reactors down,” Grossi said. “And this place was shelled several times, several times, which tells you that people knew exactly what they were doing.”
“They were trying to cut off the power source,” Stahl said.
“Exactly,” Grossi replied.
Shelling also destroyed one of the plant’s office buildings. And the workers who stayed behind to maintain the plant are under duress. A plant spokesman who fled Ukraine after working four months under Russian occupation said he felt like a hostage. There have been reports of imprisonments, kidnappings and torture of Ukrainian employees. The head of the plant was detained.
“When you’re operating at a nuclear power plant and you’re under stress, and you’re worried, and you’re feeling threatened,” Stahl asked Grossi, “doesn’t that lead to the possibility of human error?”
“Of course. Yes,” Grossi said. “And the shelling goes on. And this is why we have been trying, I have been pushing, for the establishment of a protection zone. Which is basically, ‘don’t attack the plant.'”
He took his protection zone proposal to both President Zelensky in Kyiv and President Putin, in a one-on-one meeting last month in St. Petersburg.
“Would you say that [Putin] is familiar with what’s going on,” Stahl asked, “at this nuclear plant?”
Absolutely,” Grossi said. “He knows every detail of it, which was surprising to me.”
“In my conversation with him, I could see that he had a very detailed knowledge, not only of the layout of the– of the plant, but also, and very importantly, of the electrical access, the external power source,” Grossi said. “It is a facility that he knows– that he knows very well.”
“Is Mr. Putin trying to use this plant as a weapon?” Stahl asked. “Someone said to us the other day, ‘You know, this is his dirty bomb, this plant.'”
“Yeah, but if you protect it there’s no dirty bomb,” Grossi said.