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U.N. looks to ‘cool’ fears of dirty bomb with visit to Ukraine

Unsubstantiated Russian claims that Ukraine intends to use a radiological weapon and continued shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear plant have ratcheted up concerns of nuclear escalation

Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, announced on Oct. 27 plans to inspect unsupported Russian claims of a Ukrainian dirty bomb. (Video: Reuters, Photo: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Reuters)
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The head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog said he hopes to “cool off” the nuclear saber-rattling between Russia and the West by dispatching inspectors to the Ukrainian nuclear sites that Moscow claims are being used to divert radioactive materials for use in a dirty bomb.

The upcoming visit, overseen by International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, could help disprove Russia’s widely criticized claims of a Ukrainian nuclear plot. But by taking Moscow’s accusations at face value, it also risks elevating the sensational charges.

The visit will be the latest high-wire act of a bureaucrat who has conversed extensively with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky while trying to maintain his agency’s status as a neutral watchdog of the world’s most dangerous materials.

Grossi, speaking to reporters during a visit to The Washington Post on Tuesday, emphasized Ukraine’s support for the inspection and said the visit can provide clarity amid a heated international dispute.

“It required a formal invitation [from Ukraine],” Grossi said. “I decided that it was, of course, my duty to step forward.”

The two sites the IAEA plans to inspect are a research facility that produces isotopes and a mine that can process uranium. The goal is to ensure that nothing has gone missing.

Grossi said he is “so far” unaware of any missing radioactive material in Ukraine, but he is seeking to quickly dispatch inspectors to Ukraine to check inventories against the agency’s existing records. Putin on Wednesday repeated the accusation that Ukraine was planning to build and use a dirty bomb, drawing from its civilian stores of uranium and other radioactive material.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine transferred its stores of nuclear weapons back to Moscow in 1994 in exchange for territorial guarantees from the United States, Britain and Russia.

“They’re going to go there and check the material balance because we know every gram of nuclear material in Ukraine,” Grossi said of his inspection teams.

A dirty bomb uses conventional explosives to detonate a cache of radioactive material with the aim of spreading radioactive contamination. It’s a cruder — and less deadly — device than a nuclear bomb, although it has the potential for significant civilian harm and widespread economic damage if detonated in an urban area.

Ukraine denies any plans to develop a dirty bomb. The United States has warned that the Russian claims could be aimed at creating a pretext for the Kremlin to escalate the conflict and potentially use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

“We have seen a pattern in this conflict … where the Russians have engaged in mirror imaging,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “The Russians have accused the Ukrainians … of what it itself was planning. That is our concern.”

The topic was discussed at a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday, where Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, distributed a letter claiming that Ukraine’s research and mining agencies “have received direct orders from Zelenskyy’s regime to develop such a dirty bomb” and “the works are at their concluding stage.”

While many nations welcome the visit by the IAEA, which Grossi said would happen “within days,” few experts think the inspection will be the final word on the matter.

“No matter how extensive the IAEA’s monitoring of Ukrainian nuclear facilities might be, no matter how thorough it is, Russia will seek to spread disinformation and try to discredit the agency’s work,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

By Grossi’s own acknowledgment, the IAEA visit will not cover the universe of sources of dirty bombs, leaving open the possibility that Moscow claims that the inspection is incomplete.

“If you’re talking about a radiological material device, a.k.a. a dirty bomb, you can get it in different places,” Grossi said, mentioning hospitals as an example.

Kimball said it’s important to not lose track of where the primary nuclear threat stems from in the eight-month conflict. “The reality is that it’s President Putin who is issuing illegal threats of nuclear weapons use and there is no logic for Ukraine to use radiological weapons on its own soil,” he said.

The IAEA, meanwhile, is continuing to press both sides in the conflict to agree to a shelling-free buffer zone around Ukraine’s civilian nuclear facilities, especially the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. The plant, located in a Russian-controlled region on the banks of the Dnieper River, is located near the front lines, and in recent months the facility has been struck repeatedly by artillery and mortar shells. Kyiv and Moscow have traded accusations of responsibility for the shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

While declining to assess blame for the shelling around Zaporizhzhia, Grossi has sought to mediate an agreement to prevent what he fears could be an environmental disaster for both countries, and perhaps their neighbors as well. Grossi has met personally with Putin and Zelensky in recent weeks to urge both leaders to ban fighting near the plant.

“I think we are quite close” to an agreement, said Grossi, who said both leaders clearly understood the potential disaster that could unfold if the plant’s reactors or fuel rods are damaged by fighting.

“Whatever your military aims or goals are, you don’t need to shell a nuclear power plant,” Grossi said, summarizing his pitch to both men. “Whichever side of the war you are standing on, it’s a very bad idea, and the consequences will be equally bad.”

He described his meeting with Putin as “intense,” involving strong disagreements on Russia’s claimed annexation of the power plant and its surrounding region, but also noted a willingness to collaborate.

“He recognizes that he can work with me,” Grossi said of Putin. “He has perfect knowledge of the plant, the technical aspects of the plant, so it was a very focused conversation.”

IAEA officials based at Zaporizhzhia have documented damage from fighting to several key buildings at the plant. Photographs of the facility revealed gaping holes in the concrete roof of a storage building that houses fresh nuclear fuel rods.

“If you look down 10 meters, you see the [nuclear fuel] rods,” Grossi said.

He said that during his discussion with Putin in St. Petersburg earlier this month, the Russian president said workers were beginning construction of a thick outer roof as additional protection for spent fuel containers.

During the summer, some spent fuel containers came into close contact with artillery blasts, raising fears of a radioactive explosion. Even with a new roof, the threat remained significant, Grossi said.

“It’s not something that is going to be completely impenetrable, but it will provide some protection,” Grossi said.