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How to Avoid a Nuclear Disaster in Ukraine

There were reports on Saturday that the International Atomic Energy Agency has a team of experts ready to visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant within days. It would not be a minute too soon: Artillery shells are landing with chilling regularity in and around the facility, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.

In the latest scare, shelling on Thursday damaged external power lines, threatening critical power supply to the facility. Ukrainian technicians were able to reconnect the plant to the national power grid on Friday, averting disaster.

Sanity is a hard sell in a war in which Russia is waging a scorched-earth campaign to bring Ukraine to its knees, and Ukraine is fighting for its survival. Yet the recent agreement to allow grain shipments out of Ukraine demonstrated that international pressure on the Russia to prevent the conflict from spreading beyond the battlefields can work. And with Chernobyl as a shared traumatic memory, Russians and Ukrainians know better than most nations the horror of a nuclear catastrophe.

I was the Times bureau chief in Moscow when Chernobyl erupted in April 1986, and remember well the eerie fear of an invisible, deadly threat permeating the clear spring air. Thirty six years later, about 1,000 square miles around the wounded plant are still sealed off as a Zone of Alienation. No doubt those memories are behind reports that Ukraine is preparing evacuation plans for about 400,000 people living near the Zaporizhzhia plant.

Zaporizhzhia is a more modern and far safer model than Chernobyl, theoretically capable of withstanding far greater damage. But the potential for a massive disaster when lethal shells land among the nuclear reactors, cooling towers, machine rooms and radioactive waste storage sites is real and present.

Seized by the Russians shortly after they invaded Ukraine six months ago, the sprawling plant on the Dnipro River is now on the front line of the war. A Times report on Tuesday detailed what that means: artillery shells exploding and tracer rounds streaking through the complex while a skeletal crew of Ukrainian technicians maintains the plant under the guns of an estimated 500 Russian soldiers.

The Times reported that during the initial Russian invasion, a large-caliber bullet pierced an outer wall of one of the six reactors, while an artillery shell struck an electrical transformer filled with flammable cooling oil at another. Loss of electrical power to the plant could have led to a meltdown. Fortunately, it did not ignite.

The director general of the I.A.E.A., Rafael Mariano Grossi, recently outlined seven indispensable conditions critical for nuclear safety and security, which included the physical integrity of the plant, off-site power supply, cooling systems and emergency preparedness. “All these pillars have been compromised, if not entirely violated, at one point or another during this crisis,” he warned.

The plant — and all other Ukrainian nuclear stations, and all nuclear stations the world round — should ideally be regarded as demilitarized zones. That is essentially what U.N. officials have called for. But that is a tall order in a war of attrition and survival. A more immediate, urgent and achievable goal is for the experts assembled by the International Atomic Energy Agency to enter the plant.

The I.A.E.A., the United Nations and Western leaders have arranged just such a mission. Ukraine and Russia claim they’re for it. But getting mortal enemies to stand back has not proved easy. Instead, the shelling has intensified this month, along with a war of words.

The Ukrainians, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have accused the Russians of using the plant as a “nuclear shield” for troops, weapons and ammunition, and of firing in and around it. The Russians have accused the Ukrainians of shooting at a plant that they say Russia’s soldiers are protecting.

In an act of unsurprising chutzpah, Russia called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council this week to broadcast its claims, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to deplore wasting “more than an hour to listen to a slew of fictitious sound bites.”

It is all but impossible to determine who is doing the shooting. But the fact of the matter is that there would be no threat of a nuclear catastrophe had Russia not invaded Ukraine, and the danger would promptly end if the Russians left.

After weeks of disagreement between Russia and Ukraine over how the I.A.E.A. would enter the plant, experts are set to check on its operation and to propose how to make it as secure as possible.

Ukraine has called for international military and nuclear experts to be stationed permanently at the site to ensure that the power plant and its immediate surroundings are secure and free of heavy weapons. These are legitimate concerns and just demands; Russia, however, has rejected the creation of a demilitarized zone around the power plant.

But these are differences that can be resolved, ‌through quiet negotiations, ‌if both sides agree on the larger imperative of avoiding a nuclear disaster, which be as disastrous for Russia as for Ukraine or any other territory the radiation might reach.

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