Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, is perhaps the most dangerous place in the world today. The factory is in Russian-occupied Ukraine and has been bombed several times since March.
The situation is being closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency responsible for ensuring that nuclear facilities are safe and that atomic materials are only used for peaceful purposes. Its managing director, Rafael Mariano Grossi, recently inspected the site.
“Well, it’s an unprecedented thing, really, in many ways,” Grossi told Lesley Stahl for this week’s 60 Minutes. “This place is on the front lines, which makes it all so unstable and requires urgent action.”
Before the war, the plant supplied 20% of Ukraine’s electricity. It is now largely inactive, but the reactors still have to be constantly cooled with circulating water. If they overheat, it could lead to a nuclear disaster within hours.
“The whole system is cooled by the electricity that comes in from the city, and there is bombardment,” Stahl told Grossi. “So what would happen if that electricity went down?”
“What you have in this situation are emergency systems that kick in. Like diesel generators that you may have on 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 that depends on fuel. Because when your diesels run out of whatever you put in then what happens? Then you have a meltdown. Then you have a major radiological nuclear emergency or an accident, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.
“So this situation is totally precarious,” Stahl said.
“Totally,” Grossi replied. “Until we have protected this plant, the possibility of a nuclear disaster is there.”
This potential disaster could eclipse Chernobyl, a much smaller Ukrainian power plant that exploded 36 years ago. In late August, after months of negotiations with both sides, Director General Grossi led his agency’s first mission to an active war zone to inspect the stability of the Zaporizhzhia site.
“And as we approached the last Ukrainian checkpoint, we started to hear shooting, quite heavy shooting. Very close, very close to us. So at that time, even the people at the checkpoint were running to take cover,” Grossi said. “I think it was a clear attempt to stop us. To say, ‘Go home. This isn’t your home.'”
But they continued. There were soldiers, tanks and armored trucks everywhere. The Russians actually use the nuclear power plant as a military base.
“When you went to visit, inspect,” Stahl asked Grossi, “you could go anywhere?”
“Yeah, you know, we’re the IAEA,” Grossi said. “We are known as the nuclear watchdog.”
“Well, there are reports that you weren’t allowed into a crisis room over there in the control room,” Stahl said. ” Is not it 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 wanted to see it,” Grossi said. “But for us, what is important is to look at the essential nuclear operation of the plant. And that, we were able to see.”
This included evidence that rockets had come dangerously close to reactors and other sensitive areas. In a satellite photo, Grossi also pointed to the switchyard where electricity comes from the city.
“So that’s where the external energy comes in to cool the reactors,” Grossi said. “And this place has been bombed multiple times, multiple times, which tells you people knew exactly what they were doing.”
“They were trying to shut off the power source,” Stahl said.
“Exactly,” Grossi replied.
The shelling also destroyed one of the factory’s office buildings. And the workers who stayed behind to maintain the factory are under duress. A factory spokesman who fled Ukraine after four months working under Russian occupation said he felt like a hostage. Cases of imprisonment, kidnapping and torture of Ukrainian employees have been reported. The head of the factory was arrested.
“When you’re working in a nuclear power plant and you’re stressed and you’re worried and you feel threatened,” Stahl asked Grossi, “doesn’t that bring up the possibility of human error? “
“Of course. Yes,” Grossi said. “And the shelling continues. And that’s why we tried, I lobbied, for the establishment of a protection zone. Basically, ‘don’t attack the factory’.”
He presented his protection zone proposal to President Zelensky in Kyiv and to President Putin, during a one-on-one meeting last month in St. Petersburg.
“Would you say that [Putin] knows what’s going on,” Stahl asked, “at this nuclear plant? »
Absolutely,” Grossi said. “He knows all the details, which surprised me.”
“In my conversation with him, I could see that he had a very detailed knowledge, not only of the layout of the installation, but also, and this is very important, of the electrical access, the external power source,” Grossi said. said. “It’s a facility that he knows – that he knows very well.”
“Is Mr. Putin trying to use this plant as a weapon? Stahl asked. “Somebody said to us the other day, ‘You know, it’s his dirty bomb, that plant.'”
“Yeah, but if you protect it, there’s no dirty bomb,” Grossi said.