With fears growing that the fighting near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine could cause a nuclear disaster, 42 countries – including Belgium – issued a statement on Sunday demanding that Russia withdraws its troops from the plant.
The presence of soldiers and weapons at the nuclear site is unacceptable and goes against the safety principles that all members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must respect, said the signatory countries.
"Belgium is profoundly concerned by the situation in the Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine and the serious threat that the seizure of these nuclear facilities and other actions by Russian armed forces pose to their safety and security, significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endangering the population of Ukraine, neighbouring states and the international community," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
"We fully support the IAEA's efforts to strengthen nuclear safety and security in Ukraine," it added. "In this regard, it is of the utmost importance to facilitate a mission of the IAEA to the power plant to address nuclear safety, security and safeguards concerns, in a manner that fully respects Ukrainian sovereignty."
🇧🇪🇺🇦 Belgium is profoundly concerned by the situation in the #Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in #Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/2ARO7vxWWS— 🇧🇪 Belgium MFA (@BelgiumMFA) August 11, 2022
The operator of the nuclear power plant and the Ukrainian authorities can no longer meet their safety obligations, and as a result of the Russian presence, the IAEA said it cannot play its role.
"Members of the IAEA are concerned that accidents could possibly happen because of the presence of those Russian troops," David Criekemans, senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Antwerp told VRT.
"They are apparently interfering with the work of the local specialists, they could also be removing oil from the diesel generators or even interfering with the electricity supply of the nuclear power plant itself, which could cause accidents," he added. "I think we should see it mainly as an appeal to Russia to comply with the international rules it has agreed to. This is an attempt by the international community to bring Russia back to its senses."
On Sunday, grenades were said to have exploded again in Energodar, a town near the nuclear power station. Who is responsible is not clear, as Russia and Ukraine are accusing each other of being responsible for this. Last week, the nuclear power plant was also shot at several times.
This weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a video message that the Russian soldiers who continue firing on the Zaporizhzhia plant will become a "special target" of Ukraine.
"Every Russian soldier who shoots at the power plant must understand that he will become a special target for our intelligence service, for our special services, for our army," he said, adding that the Russians are using the power plant in an "extremely cynical way" by almost literally hiding in it.
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The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the largest in Europe, and while it is still operated by Ukrainian staff, it has been under Russian control since March. Russian troops also carry out attacks from the plant's premises on surrounding Ukrainian cities on the other side of the Dnipro River.
According to the Ukrainian state company Energoatom, which owns the stations, a nuclear disaster was "miraculously" avoided last weekend, but "miracles do not last forever." At the start of last week, the company's top executive called for the plant and the surrounding area to be made into a demilitarised zone.
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also called for the plant and the area around it to be made into a demilitarised zone, which would then come under international control.
"I call on the armed forces of Russia and Ukraine to immediately cease all military activities in the vicinity of the plant," he said, adding that damage to the plant or other nuclear facilities could have "catastrophic consequences."