Update on efforts to form a ‘protection’ team of unarmed civilian volunteers to monitor a de-militarised zone around the endangered nuclear power plant and support the IAEA inspectors.

Recap: Zaporizhzhya has six old reactors surrounded by 37 years of nuclear waste in unprotected cooling pools and dry casks. The plant is near the front line and has been in Russian hands since February although it is owned and operated by the Ukrainian state entity Energoatom, whose personnel still have the day-to-day management.

For months artillery fire has caused damage to various structures including the backup power supply lines needed to keep the reactors and their waste management systems from meltdown or fire.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has examined the plant for safety. The last reactor is now shut down and the backup power to the coolant system reconnected. A demilitarized zone of 30km around the plant was recommended but nothing was agreed upon at the last time of writing (22 October). There are of course many obstacles in the way.

For example:

  • Ukraine is reluctant to de-militarise its own territory for fear of ceding it to the Russian occupation. Russia is reluctant to de-militarise such a strategic asset that its army now controls. It is felt that armed UN peacekeepers would only make this volatile situation worse.
  • Neutral and unarmed civilians, suitably trained and in sufficient numbers, could monitor a de-militarized zone without giving military advantage to either side, at the same time protecting the plant until its fate is decided by the fortunes of war or negotiation.
  • Could enough volunteers be attracted? Hundreds would be needed to patrol and monitor the area around the plant.
  • What skill sets are needed and where are the trainers?
  • Funding

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the UN’s nuclear watchdog the International Agency of Atomic Energy, has repeated his call to de-militarise the area and predicts both sides will eventually agree to it (having been in communication with both Zelensky and Putin). The Steering Committee for the Zaporizhzhya Protection Proposal is working towards establishing a party of 50 volunteers initially, and this should strengthen Grossi’s hand.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi assumed office on 3 December 2019.

John Reuwer, who is chair of the Steering Committee, says: “Right now, we have 28 volunteers to go into Zaporizhzhya, with 9 others who are interested but have not yet committed themselves. We need to increase our firm number to around 50, but the more the better. We would expect people to deploy for 1-2 months. Numerous unarmed civilian protection groups have been approached to conduct the training.”

Training will be tailored to the task, namely, providing protection for a nuclear facility in a highly contested conflict zone, and will probably be conducted online. High hopes are pinned on the Vatican and backing from Pope Francis, who has spoken out strongly in favor of nonviolent means of conflict resolution.

Meanwhile, in recent days we’ve seen reports that Ukrainian officials think Russia is preparing to quit the plant. This seems unlikely and the Kremlin denies it. So the presumption must be that the standoff continues and so does the imminent danger of catastrophe.

There is still much to do and many questions volunteers might want answered before committing themselves. What about accommodation, travel arrangements, jabs, insurance cover, equipment, expenses, etc?

For those interested, further information and a form to sign up can be found at https://worldbeyondwar.org/zap/

© Stuart Littlewood, 30 November 2022


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