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The International Atomic Energy Agency is on a risky mission in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The International Atomic Energy Agency is on a risky mission. A team of experts reportedly arrived in Ukraine and could begin to inspect Europe's largest nuclear plant later this week. Repeated shelling around the Zaporizhzhia plant raises the threat of a nuclear disaster for southern Ukraine and beyond. So what can the inspectors do in the middle of a war zone? Joining us now by Skype is Olli Heinonen. He is a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He's now a fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. Good morning.

OLLI HEINONEN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being on the program. So I wanted to start with that big question. How do you safely inspect a nuclear facility in the middle of an active war zone?

HEINONEN: Well, it is certainly difficult, and everything depends on the arrangements which have been done beforehand because we have seen that Mr. Grossi has visited a couple of times Ukraine, talked with the authorities, met with the Russian officials in Turkey. So they have done everything to make it possible to have a safe visit by the IAEA inspectors there and most importantly, also, to ensure that they have access to the - all the buildings at the site, talk with the relevant people, perhaps also take photos and videos for later evaluation.

FADEL: Now, the inspection is scheduled to last only a few days. Based on your expertise, what can inspectors accomplish in just a few days?

HEINONEN: Well, first of all, you'll see that there is about one dozen inspectors, so there is enough person power to do. But they try to establish the status of the reactor. Is it in safe mode of operation? What are the views of the facility operators? Which are the deficiencies the operators see? Which are the services they may be lacking of - spare parts, additional support? What is the status of the facility from the safety point of view in general? They put all this together and evaluate at the site and then come back to Vienna and continue to work with that. But I want to add one thing here. This should not be a one-time visit. The IAEA has to establish maybe even a continuous presence at this facility to make sure that it operates safely and it has all the services available which a safe operator requires.

FADEL: Now, how unusual is this entire situation - a nuclear power plant under threat and inspectors going to inspect it in the middle of active conflict?

HEINONEN: Yeah, this has happened a couple of times before. We just have forgotten about it. In the time of Iran-Iraq war, the IAEA inspected facilities both in Iran and in Iraq. Then during the Yugoslavia war, one of the reactors operating nuclear power plants was on the war zone. So special arrangements were done, and I think that we were also lucky that nothing special happened. So this is unusual event, but this is more serious than the previous cases because this war is much more intensive, and this reactor is in the frontline.

FADEL: Right.

HEINONEN: On one side of the Dnieper River is the Russian forces occupying eastern Ukraine, and on the other side are Ukrainian forces which are defending their country. And there has been shelling from this nuclear side towards the Ukrainian side. So it appears to me that the Russians use this as a shield for their military activities, which is totally unacceptable.

FADEL: Should a nuclear accident happen, which is what everyone fears, how many people would this actually impact? Like, how wide-reaching would the danger be?

HEINONEN: Well, it certainly depends on the scale of the accident, but if we take a very serious one as an example with the Fukushima power plant accident about 10 years ago - so it will be 150 kilometers from that spot will scatter radioactive fallout and contamination. And in the proximity of the facility, maybe radius of 50, 100 kilometers, even, there needs to be some evacuation for a while. But this is most likely not going to be like a Chernobyl, where the reactor caught fire, and that fire caused this long-distance radioactive nuclide fallout. We should not see in this kind of reactor that kind of phenomena, fortunately. But still, small accidents are very possible. And that's why one has to take care of this place. And in my view, it should be a military exclusion, so...

FADEL: Olli Heinonen is a former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, now a fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. Thank you so much for your time.

HEINONEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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