Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Wednesday ordering his country’s authorities to take control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine and make it a “federal property”.
The biggest nuclear plant in Europe is controlled by Russian troops since early March but continues to be operated by Ukrainian staff, with the raging battle between the two neighbors raising fears of a nuclear disaster.
Earlier on Wednesday, the state-run RIA news agency, citing a foreign ministry official, reported that Russia plans to supervise operations of the plant after formally taking the wider Zaporizhzhia region following referendums this week.
“The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is now on the territory of the Russian Federation and, accordingly, should be operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies,” RIA quoted deputy foreign minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.
Also on Wednesday, Russian news agency TASS said Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is slated to visit Moscow in the coming days to discuss the situation at the plant.
Addressing the Energy Intelligence Forum in London via telephone link from Ukraine on Wednesday, he said the electricity supply to the nuclear power plant is fragile.
“The situation with regards to external power continues to be extremely precarious. We do have at the moment external power, but it is, I would say, fragile. There is one line feeding the plant,” he said.
On Tuesday, the head of Ukraine’s nuclear power operator was quoted as saying in an interview with AP that Ukrainian officials are mulling over restarting two reactors at the plant to ensure its equipment remains undamaged and operational.
Energoatom President Petro Kotin said the company will decide whether to restart the reactors as winter approaches, to make sure the safety system does not cease working due to cold.
“We at the moment are evaluating all the risks. And this depends on the weather. And actually, we don’t have much time to do that,” Kotin said.
“If you have low temperature, you will just freeze everything inside. The safety equipment will be damaged,” he added, warning of “dangerous consequences.”
Last month, the head of Russia’s Security Council had accused the US of supplying Kiev with crucial intelligence on the location of critical facilities for shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
Nikolay Patrushev said “the shelling of critical facilities of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant by Ukrainian nationalists using heavy guns supplied by NATO countries while target designation is carried out by the United States is a serious threat to radiation safety.”
His remarks came days after Putin warned that Ukraine’s attacks on Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant could lead to “catastrophic consequences.”
Last week, the Russian leader recognized the eastern Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson as independent sovereign states, in what the Kremlin calls “accession treaties”.
In the documents, Putin invoked the universally recognized principles and norms of international law, and the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, as enshrined in the UN Charter.
It came after referendums on joining Russia in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, as well as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), held between September 23 and 27, which saw an overwhelming majority of people voting to be part of the Russian Federation.
The referendums came seven months into Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, which was launched in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the 2014 Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, as well as to defend people “who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”