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U.N. calls for demilitarized zone around nuclear plant in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.N. is calling for a demilitarized zone around a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. At a meeting of the Security Council today, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that he is gravely concerned about recent shelling around the plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Let's tell it like it is. Any damage, whether intentional or not, to Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia or to any other nuclear facility in Ukraine could spell catastrophe not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond.

CHANG: Now, last week, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency managed to reach and inspect the plant, and they say there is an urgent need to create a safety and security protection zone around the plant to prevent a nuclear accident. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has been following this news, as well as NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. They join us now. Hey to both of you.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. Geoff, let's start with you. I know that after their visit last week, the IAEA released a report on the status of the plant, and they briefed the U.N. Security Council meeting. Can you just tell us real quick, what did they find exactly?

BRUMFIEL: This is a plant that is in a lot of trouble. I mean, while they were trying to do their inspection, there were artillery shells falling nearby. They had to take shelter in an administrative building. But they did get around eventually, and they documented a lot of physical damage, such as shattered windows and gaping holes in the roof of a building that holds nuclear fuel and radioactive waste - that was also due to earlier shelling. Additionally, the IAEA has been very concerned about damage to power lines both in and out of the plant. Those lines are essential to safe operations at the plant. And yesterday, the plant, at least temporarily, was disconnected from the grid. It lost those lines, and that's a pretty dangerous situation.

CHANG: Absolutely. What about the workers at the plant? I mean, we know it's occupied by Russian forces, but it's run by Ukrainian workers. What did the agency discover about how the workers are doing right now?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, it found a lot of problems there, too. The Ukrainian workforce is under what this report described as, quote, "constant high stress." The plant's staff levels are only at about 75% of normal, and nearly half of its firefighters are no longer available to work at the site. Even more worrying, the agency found lots of potential problems in the management structure. So for example, there's no longer a clear way for the plant to declare an emergency to nearby towns if something goes wrong. Those towns are, of course, under Russian administration. And its emergency operations center has been taken over by the Russian military. So Russian, you know, forces are there. Their nuclear experts are also there at the site, but the IAEA says they're not helping. They're just creating more confusion about who's in charge.

CHANG: Well, Michele, the secretary-general is appealing now for a demilitarized zone around the plant. How was that idea even received at the Security Council meeting?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, he's been calling for that for a while, but what I found really interesting today was that he not only called for Russian forces to pull back, but Antonio Guterres also said that Ukrainian forces should not move in. You know, the Ukrainians and the Russians have been accusing each other of shelling the plant, so getting both sides to pull back would obviously be best from a safety point of view. But the Ukrainians point out that the Russians shouldn't be there in the first place, and the U.S. echoes that. Just take a listen to what U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis had to say about this today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY DELAURENTIS: General statements of concern or appeals to all parties will not help resolve this crisis. All parties are not responsible for this situation. Russia is.

KELEMEN: And he says only Russia can solve this by returning the plant to Ukrainian control and leaving Ukrainian territory.

CHANG: Well, is a demilitarized zone around the plant even feasible? Like, who would enforce that?

KELEMEN: You know, those are all good questions, and I haven't heard any great answers. The IAEA doesn't have the power to do that. The U.N. secretary-general could try to negotiate some kind of security arrangement, but Russia shows no sign that it will leave the plant or return control to Ukraine. In fact, Russia's ambassador today claimed that, you know, the only threat to the plant is the shelling from Ukrainian forces. So this is a real challenge of getting a clear picture of what's happening and, you know, getting a permanent Security Council member - a veto holder like Russia - to back off.

CHANG: All right, that is NPR's Michele Kelemen and Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks to both of you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.