Macron calls Putin over fears Russia is weaponising captured nuclear plant

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has said Russia may plan to decouple the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant from the Ukrainian power grid, backing up warnings from Ukraine’s own nuclear power firm.

Macron spoke to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Friday and said the call was necessary because of the urgent nuclear threat to Europe. Putin agreed to allow independent inspectors to go to the plant, Macron’s office said, and had “reconsidered” allowing the mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency to travel to the facility from Ukrainian territory.

The Ukrainian nuclear firm Energoatom said on Friday that it feared that Russia plans to switch off the functioning power units at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which in normal times provides about one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

Russia has controlled the plant in south-east Ukraine since March, although it is still run by Ukrainian scientists. If it stopped generating electricity, its technicians would have to rely on backup power systems to continue cooling the nuclear reactors, which raises the risk of accidents.

“The Russian military is looking for suppliers of fuel for diesel generators, which must be turned on after the shutdown of power units and in the absence of external power supply for nuclear-fuel cooling systems,” Energoatom said.

Western officials said they were concerned about whether water cooling could be maintained, amid accusations that the invaders are not properly maintaining the site. “[It is] a situation we should all be watching very closely,” said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A loss of electricity supply led to the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011. Main power was lost in an earthquake, a tsunami that followed overwhelmed backup generators, and the lack of cooling led to a partial reactor meltdown.

Russia has controlled the plant, which is the largest nuclear power station in Europe, since March and stationed troops and military equipment there, leading to urgent calls for it to be demilitarised, including from the UN and Nato.

The western official said fighting around the plant was considered a lesser risk than a cooling failure, because the nuclear reactors are designed to withstand relatively heavy impact, including that from a passenger jet.

On Friday Putin renewed Russian accusations that Ukraine was shelling the site, and in the phone call with Macron he said it could lead to “a large-scale catastrophe that could lead to radiation contamination of vast territories”, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Ukrainian military intelligence had warned this week that Moscow appeared to be planning a “provocation” at the plant, and Energoatom also raised concerns about unusual activity.

On Friday while the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, visited the Black Sea port city of Odesa, Russia reportedly closed the Zaporizhzhia site to most personnel, apart from those operating the power units, Energoatom said.

Energoatom also accused Russia of shelling parts of the plant complex in false flag attacks that Moscow blamed on Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s western allies have warned that any nuclear incident would provoke a swift response.

The Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the House of Commons defence select committee, said on Friday that any nuclear accident at the site risked drawing Nato into the war.

“Let’s make it clear now: ANY deliberate damage causing potential radiation leak to a Ukrainian nuclear reactor would be a breach of Nato’s Article 5,” he said on Twitter.

Even if the reactors remain intact, however, Russia may plan to weaponise the plant simply by disconnecting it. With winter approaching, and Ukraine already concerned about gas supplies, the plant going offline could be damaging to the economy and people’s ability to stay warm.

The power it provides would need to be generated at other plants, using up limited supplies of natural gas and other fuels, or the country could face blackouts. And excess heat from the plant is key to regional heating systems.

The governor of Zaporizhzhia oblast, Oleksandr Starukh, has said that if the plant were to be disconnected, it would leave many of the city’s 700,000 residents without warmth in Ukraine’s bitter winter.

“The heating system of the city is supplied by the nuclear power plant. So if they turn it off, there’s no way to heat [our buildings]”, he told the Guardian in June. “It’s just a huge problem.”

Making a major change to operations of a nuclear plant in wartime is dangerous in itself, a senior Ukrainian energy official said. “The problem with Russia is that they’re so reckless,” said Yuriy Vitrenko, the chairman of the gas company Naftogaz, who described Russian actions as “insane”.

“The nuclear regulator would usually need require you to test something to prove that it’s absolutely safe … it’s not like you cannot experiment with a nuclear power plant. And what they’re doing now is really against all the norms.”

He said Russia did not fully understand the plant, which is from the Soviet era but has been extensively modernised. That meant the Russian regulator and Russian engineers were not fully up to date on how it works, he said.

“They can come and see but again, it’s not their plant, so they don’t know everything they need to know about how it operates and what can and should be done with this plant,” he said.

Artem Mazhulin contributed reporting on this story