The UN’s nuclear watchdog is worried that some of the fissile materials that could potentially be used to produce a nuclear weapon could go missing in Ukraine. The nightmare scenario was shared today by Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Grossi sounded the alarm over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, which was captured by Russian troops in February, but is operated by Ukrainian nuclear specialists. The IAEA is concerned about the challenges it faces in monitoring Europe’s largest civilian nuclear site due to the ongoing conflict, he said.
“Six nuclear reactors, 30,000 kg of plutonium, 40,000 kg of enriched uranium. And my inspectors do not have access to that,” he said, describing the situation, which he called “unprecedented” and “unsustainable.”
The biggest concern, he added, is that when inspectors are eventually able to take inventory of the stock, “we end up finding out that there are a few hundred kilograms of nuclear weapon-grade material going missing. This is what keeps us awake at night at the moment.”
Commercial nuclear power plants generate plutonium from uranium isotopes as part of the normal operation. Both fuel rods in the reactor core and spent fuel rods contain some of the fissile material. According to various estimates, a tonne of spent fuel may contain up to 10 kg of plutonium. Theoretically, it can be extracted at a reprocessing plant and used in a nuclear device by a party possessing the necessary technology.
Responding to media coverage of Grossi’s words, Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator rushed to explain that the IAEA chief did not reveal some previously undeclared stockpile of ready-to-be-weaponised materials in Kyiv’s possession.
Energoatom accused Wall Street Journal correspondent Laurence Norman of making false statements about the issue, without clarifying which. The journalist tweeted that the amount of nuclear fuel disclosed by Grossi was “striking” and reported that the agency wanted “to be sure no stocks [had] gone missing.”
Among the reasons that Moscow listed to justify its attack against Ukraine were statements made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the Munich Security Council in mid-February when he lamented Ukraine’s consent to relinquishing the nuclear weapons that the USSR had maintained on its territory and indicated that his country may seek to become a nuclear power. Russia said it could not afford the luxury of dismissing his speech as mere rhetoric, considering Kyiv’s hostility and nuclear expertise.
Russia attacked the neighbouring state in late February, following Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, first signed in 2014, and Moscow’s eventual recognition of the Donbas republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The German- and French-brokered protocols were designed to give the breakaway regions special status within the Ukrainian state.
The Kremlin has since demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led Nato military bloc. Kyiv insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.