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  • Schuyler Beltrami

UN Calls for Demilitarized Zone around Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

After a meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday, the body called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around the largest nuclear plant in Europe. Both the Kremlin and Kyiv have accused the other side of shelling the plant and launching military operations from the area around the plant. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, called on both sides to refrain from fighting around the nuclear mega-facility.

The Zaproizhzhia Nuclear Plant (Photo: Wikipedia)

A Nuclear Plant made into a Military Target

The war in Ukraine has entered its sixth month and with no end in sight, both sides are fighting for control of every part of Ukrainian territory. This now includes the massive nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia in Southern Ukraine. The nuclear plant, which is the largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the world, has been occupied by Russian forces since March 12 and was one of the key early targets of the Russian invasion. Since the takeover by Russian forces, the Russian state nuclear energy firm Rosatom has managed the plant, but the firm elected to keep the Ukrainian staff working at the plant, mostly due to the logistical challenges of bringing in Russian nuclear workers into an area near the front lines. The nuclear plant now stands in the middle of a large supposed Ukrainian counteroffensive, which was announced by the Ukrainian military general staff in July. The counteroffensive, which many say may have officially begun with the targeted airstrikes on a Russian air base in occupied Crimea, aims to regain ground lost to the Russian invasion forces in the south of Ukraine. This would include nearly the entire southern half of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the location of the nuclear plant. The nuclear plant has now become a military target and both sides have accused the other of firing on the plant. According to Ukrainian nuclear energy firm Energoatom, the previous managers of the nuclear plant, the plant was shelled five times on Thursday. This shelling apparently came close to parts of the plant where radioactive materials are stored. Russian state media outlet TASS said that Ukraine shelled the plant twice, as they attempted to disrupt a shift changeover occurring at the plant. Meanwhile, Ukrainian government officials have accused Russia of using the plant as a military site by launching artillery barrages from the plant in an effort to reduce the likelihood of return fire from the Ukrainians. The nuclear plant remains a key target for both sides, as the plant provided Ukraine with about 20% of their total electricity before the war began.

Calls for a Demilitarized Zone from the United Nations

The fighting around the plant has raised serious alarm from nuclear energy experts and the United Nations, who called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around the nuclear plant. Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, called on both sides to refrain from fighting around or near the plant. “The facility must not be used as part of any military operation. Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area”, said the Secretary General in a statement. Members of the UN Security Council, which includes Russia, met on Thursday to discuss the possibility of establishing such a zone around the plant. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, said that the world was on “the brink of nuclear catastrophe, comparable in scale with Chernobyl”. According to Russian officials, they would be open to a visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as soon as this month. The Russian ambassador did not however offer to demilitarize the area or return the plant to Ukrainian control. The United States backed the proposal to make the nuclear plant a demilitarized zone. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video statement that the only way to truly ensure the safety of the plant was to return it to Ukrainian control. “Only a full withdrawal of the Russians… and the restoration of full Ukrainian control of the situation around the station can guarantee a resumption of nuclear security for all in Europe”, said Mr. Zelenskyy. Despite calls for a military withdrawal from the plant by the UN, it seems very unlikely that Russia would agree to leave the site. As the planned Ukrainian counterattack in the southern part of the country ramps up over the next weeks and months, securing the safety of the site will be a main objective not only for the Ukrainian military, but also for the United Nations and the IAEA as the memories of Chernobyl remain fresh for many in Ukraine and in Europe.

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