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Ukraine: Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government (1) what assessment they have made of recent developments at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and (2) what contingency plans are being made in the event of the power plant being damaged.

My Lords, we remain gravely concerned about the implications of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine for nuclear safety, security and safeguards. We take President Zelensky’s concern about possible Russian threats to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is currently under illegal Russian control, extremely seriously. We are in regular contact with Director-General Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency and with the highest levels of the Government of Ukraine regarding the situation at the nuclear power plant. Working with our international partners, we continue to call for Russia to grant the IAEA full access to the nuclear plant, as called for by Director-General Grossi on 5 July. It is vital that IAEA staff have full access to the nuclear plant in order to monitor the safety and security of the site. Let me assure the right reverend Prelate that the Government also have well-developed and tested contingency plans to cover a range of eventualities.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Obviously, anything we can do to work with our international partners to put pressure on Russia to allow the IAEA access to the site, as it has requested, is now of utmost importance. I hope that the Minister will do all he can in talks with our international partners to put that pressure on Russia. Can he give any more information about our own domestic contingency plans, in the event of a nuclear disaster of some sort taking place on the site?

My Lords, first, as the right reverend Prelate may be aware, much of the site has been scaled down, in terms of its direct energy provision. There is currently only one operating generator on the site, and even that has been scaled down sufficiently and specifically for this purpose. Of course, the risk remains very high, but we have been assured by the IAEA that there is no immediate threat. I caveat that by saying that Director-General Grossi’s requirements and requests for full access to the site are important, and we are working through those with international partners, including countries with key influence over Russia, because that is vital in order to reassure people not only in Ukraine, but across the wider area and region.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s response; obviously, it is key to get proper access for full inspections. The United Kingdom now assumes the presidency of the Security Council—I know the Minister will be going to New York shortly. What are the opportunities to raise this question directly with counterparts at the Security Council? This is a danger with no limitation in terms of country boundaries; it could spread throughout the world and cause untold damage. It is essential that we take action at the Security Council.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are doing just that. It will be of no surprise to your Lordships’ House that this is one of the key priorities, if not the number one priority, regarding Ukraine as a whole. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged quite directly; for example, he met Director-General Grossi during the Ukraine Recovery Conference to ensure that the exact requirements are fully understood. The noble Lord raises a valid point about our presidency of the UN Security Council and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary himself will be presiding over the session on Ukraine.

Unfettered access is key, particularly when we think about events that have damaging effects reaching far beyond the illegal war that Russia continues to wage. We have already seen, following the destruction of the dam, the damage caused by floating mines and the damage to agricultural land by pollutants. The effects of this war will be long lasting. I assure the noble Lord that we will engage on all these key elements during our presidency of the UN Security Council.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, since Russia illegally seized control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, its behaviour has not been consistent with even the rather feeble international protocols that deal with nuclear plants in zones of conflict? Does he agree, therefore, that we should be thinking of strengthening those international protocols? If there are to be more nuclear power stations around the world—which is something that many of us would support—some of them will end up in conflict zones and stronger protocols will be needed to safeguard them. Can the Minister also give the thanks of this House to the director-general of the IAEA for the work that he has been doing to keep things more or less under control?

I assure the noble Lord that, on his second point, we will relay that to the director-general. On his first point, the missile attack on 9 March, which cut off the power supply to the Zaporizhzhia plant, has meant that contingency plans have been put in place, such as back-up generators. There are also now IAEA monitoring missions at all Ukrainian nuclear power plants across the country, and the United Kingdom is providing technical support to help the IAEA to fill, or backfill, any positions to keep all its priorities on track.

My Lords, the concern that the IAEA has raised, in the very careful statement referred to by the Minister, brings the need for urgent talks through the review committee mechanisms of all the nuclear powers. At the end of this month there is due to be a preparatory committee meeting in Vienna, leading to the 2026 review committee of the NPT of all the nuclear powers. Does the Minister agree that there is a case for bringing forward that review conference quite urgently? The use of nuclear weapons, as well as the Government’s approach on domestic energy production by nuclear powers, is now an urgent matter, given the concerns. Bringing forward the conference would allow some of the discussions, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, suggested, to take place.

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has said about the NPT, which I will certainly take back to the department. The noble Lord will be acutely aware that one party to the NPT happens to be a country called Russia. Let us not forget that, when the invasion started in February last year, Mr Putin himself had signed the NPT just before on 4 January, yet his rhetoric—thankfully not his actions—has since followed a very different trajectory. While I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of co-operation, we must keep the NPT at the forefront of our minds; Russia is a signatory, but it is not just about signing documents, it is also about abiding by them.

My Lords, we all remember Chernobyl. Is there not a case, following something that my noble friend said a few moments ago, to call in Commonwealth countries and discuss with countries such as South Africa and India—which for reasons entirely beyond me are giving succour and support to Russia—that this could indeed be an international disaster beyond limit? If this wretched plant erupts in the way that Chernobyl did, who knows when the end will come.

My Lords, first, on the plant itself, I reiterate my earlier point: from the indications in the IAEA’s assessment reports, there is no imminent threat or challenge. That is why it is important that the IAEA is given full and unfettered access to make a comprehensive assessment. The nuclear plant has been much dialled down in terms of its capacity and energy production.

My noble friend talks about other key international partners. It is important to reflect that, in votes this year at the United Nations, which I have been involved with indirectly, we have seen a consistent level of 140-plus countries voting. With 193 countries in the UN, that is a very positive voting result for Ukraine’s position. On the countries mentioned by my noble friend, I note that, while they have long-standing relationships with Russia—the likes of India have historically had a strong military reliance on Russia—their abstentions should be put in context. They have not supported Russia’s position but have sought to abstain. Of course, we are aware of some of the meetings and diplomacy being undertaken currently by Russia, and I assure my noble friend that, in the context of bigger countries such as South Africa and India, we make a very strong case that the war on Ukraine cannot be underestimated; it is an illegal war on a sovereign territory, which is now being occupied by Russia, a P5 member of the United Nations.

That is compounded by the issue we are now talking about—the nuclear power plant. The direct results are not just an energy crisis in Europe, but a global food security crisis. We have seen the environmental damage caused by the pollutants that are now affecting the Dnipro river; the Black Sea grain initiative is also being impeded and the economies of countries in Europe and North Africa in particular are being directly challenged. The reality of this war is not limited to two countries or to a continent; it is a global challenge and we need to address it collectively.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the first priority must be ending this war and safeguarding that nuclear plant in Ukraine? Does he recall that, following the Chernobyl disaster, a radioactive cloud was blown over the UK and deposited radioactive fallout on to the Welsh hills? That led to sheep being held back from the food chain for many months, undermining agriculture. Could he therefore give an assurance that, in looking at these implications, he will consult the farming unions to see what steps could be held in reserve in case this happens again?

My Lords, of course I will listen to the wise counsel of the noble Lord, and I will take that back. However, in preparing both for this Private Notice Question and our general approach to support for Ukraine, I am reassured that the wider implications are very much understood. I assure the noble Lord, as I have said repeatedly on a raft of different issues, that on any challenge in foreign policy we never forget our own back yard. The first priority of any Government is the security of their citizens, and we take that very seriously. I will follow up on the noble Lord’s point.

My Lords, in respect of the plant itself, it is important that the IAEA gets in to find out whether there are explosive devices on top of two of the reactors, why they would be put there and what likely damage they would do if they exploded. It is suggested that they are there for it to appear as though the Ukrainians have bombed the plant themselves. The most important thing here is not to get confused between perceived dangers and real dangers. This plant is of a particular design. My understanding is that the most dangerous nuclear fission that could come from it will have been depleted because it has not been working for months—I think it is iodine-113, though this is not from my expertise but from my reading. We need an authoritative explanation of the risks, from a nuclear engineer of repute, telling us what the potential consequences would be of further damage to this plant—not speculation by people from their recollections of previous incidents. This is a distinctive plant that was created in a particular way. My understanding is that we can be reassured that, while it would not be a good thing to happen and there would be significant local consequences, this is not a repeat of Chernobyl.

The noble Lord is well-informed by his reading, and his is very much an accurate assessment. This particular plant is much more modern and state-of-the-art. The fact is that most of its activities and energy generations have been turned down—indeed, most of the reactors are now not operational. Even without inspections, that assessment can be made. However, I add the necessary caveat that all of us, including Russia, will get reassurance when the IAEA can get access and, as the noble Lord said, there is an expert opinion on the table that we all recognise. This war will continue but it is in Russia’s interests, not just Ukraine’s and everyone else’s, to allow access. Russia itself has been a signatory to ensuring that this kind of access and assessments of facilities are done regularly, accurately and comprehensively.

My Lords, I refer to my interest as chair of the National Preparedness Commission. I am not sure that the Minister answered the supplementary question from the right reverend Prelate, which was very much about what is actually being done in this country in the event of this happening and it being on the more severe end of concerns. First, could he specifically tell us what guidance has been provided to local resilience forums as to what they should be doing and preparing for? Secondly, what contingency arrangements have the Government put in place for communications with the general public to deal with any panic, concerns or legitimate fears that there might be?

On the second point, the noble Lord himself will know that there is comprehensive contingency planning by any Government. This is the case with successive Governments—we will seek to mitigate against all eventualities, all risks and all concerns, and we will seek to prepare for them. On the issue of communication and more access to information and information that can be shared, I will take back what the noble Lord has suggested. I have been assured that, from a cross-government perspective, all the key agencies that need to be involved are fully involved. I cannot stress enough, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said in a previous question, that this plant, compared to those of previous nuclear incidents such as Chernobyl, is very different. However, I have been very careful to caveat that, because only when we get a full comprehensive assessment can we make a full overall assessment. Mitigations, assessments and contingency planning are very much in place. If there is further information to be shared, I will share it.