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Macron urges Putin to remove weapons from around nuclear plant

Macron urges Putin to remove weapons from around nuclear plant
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 8 February 2022. (EPA-EFE/SERGEY GUNEEV / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK POOL MANDATORY CREDIT)

French President Emmanuel Macron urged Russia to withdraw “heavy and light” weaponry from around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant during a “frank exchange” with President Vladimir Putin on Sunday. 

The pair spoke after the last operating unit at the Russian-occupied facility was shut safely – dialling back, for now, the “precarious” danger level cited on Friday by the UN’s atomic agency. 

Macron “insisted on the need to ensure the safety” of the plant, according to a readout from his office. “He reiterated that the Russian occupation was the cause of the risks”, surrounding Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.  

Russia’s war on Ukraine marks the first time a military conflict has been waged around an operating atomic power station. Hundreds of Russian troops are using the surrounding area as a base. 

Kyiv and Moscow continue to exchange blame on whose forces have shelled the area around the plant. Putin on Sunday repeated Russia’s claim that Ukraine’s forces are responsible, according to a Kremlin readout. 

Putin “drew attention to regular Ukrainian attacks on” the plant’s facilities, “which is fraught with catastrophic consequences”, the Kremlin said. 

Macron intends to speak with Putin again in the coming days – as well as to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the UN’s nuclear agency – in a bid to reach an agreement on safety guarantees, his office said. 

Early on Sunday, Ukraine’s Energoatom, operator of the plant in the nation’s southeast, said the No 6 generator at Zaporizhizhia will be cooled down and preserved. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday called the situation at the plant dire after layers of safety-backup systems were rendered ineffective by a power outage. 

On Saturday, several transmission lines destroyed by recent shelling were restored. Energoatom used power from the national grid to cool the unit and put it in the safest possible mode.

Energoatom said it’s attempting to stock up on diesel fuel in case power transmission is damaged again. Diesel could then be used to sustain the isolated power plant and keep reactors cooled.   

The atomic plant in Energodar, Europe’s largest and with a replacement value in the tens of billions of dollars, is seen as a war prize for Putin, who would like to redirect its energy output to Russia’s grid. 

The IAEA has urgently recommended that a “safety and security zone” be established around the plant. An agency team led by Grossi visited the facility this month – crossing an active battlefield for the first time in the IAEA’s 65-year history – and two monitors remain at the plant. 

Shutting down Zaporizhzhia for the balance of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the safest option, a former IAEA safety official told Bloomberg News on Thursday in an Q&A session on Ukrainian nuclear risk. 

“Every day the plant is completely shut down the easier it is to cool, although spent fuel ponds will need cooling [or even water brought via fire hoses],” said Robert Kelley, former IAEA safeguards director and ex-head of the US Department of Energy’s emergency radiological response unit. 

“Planned shut down and an extended outage until the war is resolved is the safest course of action,” Kelley said. BM

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