Explained | What is the IAEA, the agency seeking permanent presence at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant? 

The nuclear watchdog braved shelling to visit the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine to assess the safety situation 

Updated - September 07, 2022 02:13 pm IST

Published - September 04, 2022 05:08 pm IST

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi before departing for a visit to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on September 1, alongside the nuclear watchdog’s logo.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi before departing for a visit to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on September 1, alongside the nuclear watchdog’s logo. | Photo Credit: Reuters, IAEA

The story so far: Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continued their survey on Friday, September 2 for the second day to assess the safety situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) on the banks of the Dnieper River near the Ukrainian town of Enerhodar. Europe’s largest nuclear plant was seized by Russian forces in March but continues to be operated by Ukrainian staff. It has recently become a subject of concern as the war spilt over into its premises, with both Russia and Ukraine blaming each other for the shelling and warning of a possible Chornobyl-type radiation disaster.

The IAEA mission, led by the agency’s Director General Rafael Grossi, braved gunfire in close proximity to the plant on Thursday to begin the survey and said that its inspectors were “not going anywhere” and would have a continued presence at the embattled plant.

The U.N. associated autonomous nuclear watchdog had been expressing willingness to visit the NPP since March but announced the mission’s visit last week after the nuclear plant was temporarily knocked offline amid reports of shelling in the area. The mission will now maintain a permanent presence at the plant with two of its inspectors saying back. Mr. Grossi said that the watchdog’s presence would prove to be a “game changer” for the safety situation at the power plant.

What is the IAEA and what does it do?

The IAEA is an autonomous intergovernmental body to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies and has a relationship agreement with the United Nations. It was born on July 29, 1957, after the IAEA statute was approved by 81 countries in late 1956, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Its creationwas inspired by the “Atoms for Peace” speech made by former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower at the U.N. General Assembly in 1953 when he envisioned an organisation to promote peaceful and unifying uses of nuclear energy. The IAEA is entrusted with the task of upholding the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970.

Also read: IAEA | The ‘imperfect’ fight against proliferation

According to its statute, the IAEA’s objectives include controlling and promoting the atom, meaning the promotion of nuclear technology, nuclear security and safety, and of peaceful uses of nuclear energy in areas such as agriculture and health.

The atomic watchdog and its former Director General Mohamed ElBaradei were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for the agency’s work of “incalculable importance”, at a time when disarmament efforts appeared “deadlocked” and when there was a danger that nuclear arms would “spread both to states and to terrorist groups”.

The Vienna-headquartered agency currently has 175 member states and functions through two policy-making organs- the Board of Governors and the General Conference.

The General Conference of IAEA, which has representatives from all member states, is its main governing body that approves the agency’s program and budget and makes decisions on matters brought to its attention by the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors has Governors from 35 member states, designated and elected by the General Conference. As per the U.S. Congressional Research Service, “the board’s roles include making recommendations to the IAEA General Conference regarding the agency’s program and budget, as well as appointing the IAEA Director General, with the approval of the General Conference”.

The watchdog carries out its functions in two main ways- verification and technical assistance. As a part of its task of upholding the NPT, the IAEA was made the verification agency for the Treaty. “Each non-nuclear-weapon State party is required under Article III of the NPT to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA to enable the IAEA to verify the fulfilment of their obligation under the Treaty”. It currently has these Agreements with more than 180 countries.

Essentially, safeguards are activities to ensure that countries are living up to their pledges of not using nuclear energy for nuclear-weapons purposes. Each member country and non-members who voluntarily wish to do so sign CSAs with the IAEA, where they declare their nuclear material and activities, which the IAEA inspectors then verify through on-site visits, inspections, testing techniques, tallying of declared project designs with nuclear facilities, and “containment and surveillance techniques, such as tamper-proof seals and cameras that the IAEA installs at facilities”.

In 1997, the agency added another layer of scrutiny to its verification process by giving countries the option of including an “additional protocol” to their CSAs, enabling the watchdog to not only verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material by countries but also to make them accountable for the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.

What are some of its prominent international engagements?

In the 1970s and 80s, the IAEA was quick to respond to severe nuclear disasters like the Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. IAEA helped the Soviet Union decommission the Chernobyl nuclear plant and safely dispose of radioactive waste. ]

After Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, the U.N. requested the IAEA’s services in inspecting Iraq’s nuclear capabilities and in destroying and rendering harmless all assets relevant to the design and production of nuclear weapons. The agency has since played a key role in Iraq by securing declarations from it and looking into its possible clandestine nuclear weapons programme. It is also credited for standing its ground under pressure from the George W. Bush administration to back the American claim that the Saddam Hussein regime of Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons.

The agency’s then Director General, Mr. El Baradei maintained that he would not rush into a judgment on this matter without incontrovertible evidence that could prove that Hussein had committed a gross violation of non-proliferation. The cautious approach later proved to be in the watchdog’s favour when the U.S. invasion of Iraq failed to yield the necessary proof of Hussein’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In Iran, the agency has played a key role in enforcing the original nuclear deal or the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. Since then, the agency is pursuing a safeguards investigation into whether Iran failed to declare traces of uranium found at three undeclared sites and has become essential for a potential Iran deal as the country demands that the investigation be wrapped up for a deal to see the light of day.

The IAEA probe relates to mainly old sites that apparently existed before or around 2003, which is when the IAEA and U.S. intelligence believe Iran halted a coordinated nuclear arms program. Iran denies this, but the IAEA was provided intel from Israeli intelligence about such material from the Iranian archives, which the country did not declare in its CSA, the agency says.

In North Korea, the IAEA was the first to announce that the country’s nuclear programme was not peaceful. North Korea in turn expelled all of IAEA’s inspectors in 2009, after which it has not been able to conduct an on-site visit there. The world is now reliant on ground sensors and satellite imagery to observe North Korea’s nuclear actions.

As for India, while it is not a signatory to the NPT, it is a ‘designated Member’ of the IAEA and has served on its Board of Governors. India signed a CSA with IAEA in 2009 and also subscribed to more scrutiny by the body entering into an “Additional Protocol” for the Application of Safeguards to Civilian Nuclear Facilities in 2014.

What are some of the criticisms of the IAEA?

For years, there have been questions about the Agency’s ability to work independently, without being drawn into big power rivalries. The most recent case in point is Iran’s criticism of the body for relying on Israeli intelligence at the beginning of its 2018 undeclared material investigation. When Pakistan pursued a nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s, despite overwhelming evidence in possession of the American authorities, they did not pursue the case effectively through the IAEA because of the cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan on the Afghan front.

Another issue is the IAEA’s lack of enforcement capability, which was hinted by Mr. El Baradei who had observed that it had “uneven authority” as it does not have any power to override the sovereign rights of any member nation of the UN.

One major criticism of the IAEA is that it has not been able to challenge the nuclear dominance of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who themselves hold some of the biggest nuclear arsenals in the world. According to experts, the biggest difficulty facing the IAEA is with the U.S. and Russia. Although the two countries cut down their nuclear arsenals since the Cold War, both still have a worrying 7,000 weapons.

What has the current mission said about the Zaporizhzhia NPP?

After inspecting all areas of the Russian-captured plant, the IAEA director general Mr. Grossi said that as the site came in the line of military activity, "It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated, several times ... this is something that cannot continue to happen.”

In March, after a fire broke out due to alleged shelling near the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Mr. Grossi had outlined the seven “indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security” at a nuclear facility, warning that “several of them had already been put at risk during events overnight at the Zaporizhzhya NPP”. The pillars relate to maintaining structural integrity, the ability of the operating staff to make decisions free of undue pressure, and securing an alternate off-site power supply from the grid, among others.

The NPP for the second time on Friday, September 2, lost the connection to its last remaining main 750 kV external power line, followed by renewed shelling in the area. The plant then had to resort to using a reserve line to continue supplying electricity through the grid, per an IAEA statement.

A day after inspecting the plant and returning to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Mr. Grossi said the increased military activity in the region worried him a lot as it posed a risk of physical damage to the plant, according to a New York Times report.

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