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How Russia Is Trying To Steal Europe’s Largest Nuclear Power Plant

  • Russia seized Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on March 4th and quickly began installing its own managers and technical staff.
  • Since then, Russian authorities have arrested the plant’s CEO and created a Moscow-based company to run the plant, firing workers that refuse to sign contracts.
  • Ultimately, Russia is attempting to achieve full control of the nuclear plant and staff, disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian grid, and connect it to its own.

Russia began installing managers and technical staff at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) soon after seizing the plant by military force on March 4 and well before officially annexing Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region to Russia (see Part One). Moscow completed the formal annexation procedures on October 5, and that same day, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree to place the ZNPP under Russian government ownership (Ukrainska Pravda, October 5). Based on Putin’s decree, the Rosenergoatom State Concern (operator of Russia’s nuclear power plants, itself part of the Rosatom state corporation) has created a ZNPP Operating Company registered in Moscow and appointed a Russian CEO of the ZNPP.

Between late September and mid-October 2022, Russian authorities arrested the ZNPP’s Ukrainian CEO, Ihor Murashov, and several other senior Ukrainian managers, held them in detention separately for some days, and then evicted them to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Since then, Rosatom representatives have descended on ZNPP from Moscow with offers to the Ukrainian staff to sign employment contracts with the Russian company. Those who do decide to sign would qualify for pay bonuses, while those refusing would be dismissed from work. Abandoning Ukrainian citizenship to take up Russian citizenship is not required, at least for now (Ukrainska Pravda, October 14, 24).

Ukraine’s Energoatom state enterprise (operator of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants) is trying to retain at least a degree of influence at the ZNPP. Energoatom President Petro Kotin has additionally taken up the position of ZNPP’s acting CEO. Policy decisions regarding the Zaporizhzhia plant are to be made in Energoatom’s central office in Kyiv, while technical matters are to be decided on-site by ZNPP staff under the Ukrainian chief engineer and subject to approval by Energoatom’s first vice-president (Ukrainska Pravda, October 5).

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Energoatom continues paying salaries and benefits to Ukrainian personnel at ZNPP who refuse employment with the Russian operating company. Energoatom has raised salaries twice: effective from October 2022 and due to take effect in January 2023. For its part, the Russian operating company offers salaries and bonuses based on the Russian pay scale (considerably higher than the Ukrainian pay scale) for staff accepting Russian employment while threatening the unwilling workers with dismissal (TASS, November 3; Ukrainska Pravda, October 31, November 7). The Russian company’s aggressive jurisdictional battle against a distant Energoatom as well as the on-site Russian military presence can exert their own intimidating effect on the Ukrainian staff.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) scrupulously respects Ukraine’s legal jurisdiction over the ZNPP (see Part One) and, as a United Nations agency, adheres to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. At the same, the IAEA must initiate a dialogue with the Russian authorities to establish and maintain a presence at the ZNPP. The IAEA has created an International Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia, whereby agency teams of four experts each rotate every four weeks at the plant. Ukraine requested and Russia accepted the IAEA’s presence from September 2022 onward (Iaea.org, August 29).

More ambitiously, the IAEA supports General Director Rafael Grossi’s initiative for a Nuclear Safety and Security Protection Zone to be created around the ZNPP. Grossi has met with Putin once and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy twice for discussions on this initiative. The IAEA chief has proposed to start by having both countries officially adopt the concept for such a zone (Iaea.org, November 10).

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Ukraine’s paramount interest in this context is for the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and legal jurisdiction over the territory in general and the ZNPP in particular to receive international reconfirmation. Kyiv calls for the ZNPP to be demilitarized - that is, all Russian forces must be removed from the plant and the town of Enerhodar - and for the ZNPP to be returned to full Ukrainian control (Ukrinform, November 20).

Moscow is interested in eliciting an informal, de facto acceptance of its grab of the ZNPP and control of the surrounding territory, even in an ambiguous form as Russia has elicited in years past from the UN in the case of Abkhazia and from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the cases of South Ossetia and Transnistria. Even short of recognition (which is ruled out ab initio), any ambiguous arrangement would play in Russia’s favor. For example, Moscow would ask an international organization to access the site (in this case, IAEA at the ZNPP) not only via Ukraine but also via Russia—or ask the international body to deal directly (if only on mundane daily matters) with the Russian occupation authorities and their local representatives. The IAEA has done none of this in Zaporizhzhia.

Russian diplomats at the UN and in Moscow (where Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov seems to handle this dossier) reject demilitarization of the ZNPP, arguing that this would result in Ukraine regaining the plant. They claim that “only” the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), not the Russian army, is present there. These authorities are open to discussing a Nuclear Safety and Security Protection Zone around the ZNPP, subject however to negotiating the parameters of such a zone to Moscow’s satisfaction. (TASS, October 12, 14; Izvestiya, October 24). This recalls Russia’s tactics in past “frozen” conflicts to use veto powers against international organizations and local countries after seizing their territories.

Addressing the G20 summit, recently held in Indonesia, President Zelenskyy called for pressuring Russia to follow the IAEA’s resolutions and recommendations: to remove all Russian military personnel from the ZNPP, hand the plant over to the IAEA and Ukrainian personnel, as well as reconnect the plant permanently to Ukraine’s national electricity grid (Ukrinform, November 15).

If the Russian occupation is allowed to continue, however, Moscow will be in a stronger position to achieve full control of the ZNPP’s management and staff, disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian grid and connect it to Russia’s, slash Ukraine’s electricity export potential, further compromise Ukraine’s already precarious energy security after the Russian missile attacks and use the ZNPP’s electricity output for Russia’s own needs.

By the Jamestown Foundation

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