Nov 21, 2022
Ukrainian nuclear power plant Zaporizhzhia may be world’s most dangerous place now Transcript
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi tells Lesley Stahl about the precarious nuclear situation in Ukraine and the work his team is doing to prevent a catastrophe. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:01):
60 years ago to the day November 20th, the world sighed and relief as the Cuban Missile crisis ended. It was the closest we ever came to nuclear Armageddon till now with Russia threatening to use nuclear weapons in the war. And then there’s the dire and deteriorating condition of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant Zaporizhzhya in Russian-occupied Ukraine. The situation is carefully monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the UN’s nuclear watchdog tasked with making sure nuclear facilities are safe and atomic material is used only for peaceful purposes. It’s Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi recently inspected the site, which may be the most dangerous place in the world.
Speaker 2 (00:58):
The story will continue in a moment.
Speaker 1 (01:03):
So correct me if I’m wrong. Is this the first time a major power plant has been under fire in the middle of a war?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (01:11):
Well, it’s an unprecedented thing really in so many ways. This place is at the frontline, which makes the whole thing so volatile and in need of an urgent action.
Speaker 1 (01:25):
Zaporizhzhya has been shelled repeatedly since March with both sides blaming each other. Before the war, the plant supplied 20% of Ukraine’s power. It’s now largely idle, but the reactors still need to be constantly cooled down with circulating water. If they overheat, it could lead to nuclear catastrophe within hours. The whole system is being cooled by electricity that’s coming in from the town and is shelling. So what would happen if that electricity went down?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (02:02):
What you have in that situation is emergency systems that kick in like diesel generators that you can have in a private property. And you don’t want the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe and one of the biggest in the world to be cooled with basically an emergency system, which is dependent on fuel. Because when your diesels are out of whatever you put in it to make them work, then what happens? Then you have a meltdown, then you have a big radiological nuclear emergency or an accident, and this is what we are trying to prevent.
Speaker 1 (02:36):
So this situation is totally precarious.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (02:41):
Totally. Until we have this plant protected, the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe is there.
Speaker 1 (02:49):
Possibly dwarfing Chernobyl, a far smaller Ukrainian plant that famously blew up 36 years ago.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (02:56):
We’re moving ahead.
Speaker 1 (02:58):
In late August, after months of negotiating with both sides, Director General Grossi led his agency’s first mission into an active war zone to inspect the stability of the site.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (03:10):
And as we were approaching the last Ukrainian checkpoint, we started hearing shooting.
Speaker 4 (03:19):
Rafael Mariano Grossi (03:21):
Quite heavy shooting very close to us.
Speaker 4 (03:24):
Speed up. Speed up. Everyone speed up [foreign language 00:03:27].
Rafael Mariano Grossi (03:28):
So at that point, even the people in the checkpoint were running for shelter.
Speaker 1 (03:32):
Do you think that the convoy itself was a target?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (03:36):
I think it was a clear attempt to stop us, to say, “Go home. This is not your place.”
Speaker 1 (03:43):
But they proceeded. There was soldiers, tanks and armored trucks everywhere. The Russians are actually using the nuclear plant as their military base. When you went to visit to inspect, you could go anywhere?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (03:59):
Speaker 1 (03:59):
You weren’t kept from-
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:00):
Yes, we are the IAEA. We are known as the nuclear watchdog.
Speaker 1 (04:05):
Well, there are reports that you weren’t allowed into some crisis room, into the control room. Is that not true?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:13):
Well, there were areas where we were limited, but all the things we needed to see, we could see.
Speaker 1 (04:20):
You didn’t want to see the control room?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:21):
Yeah, we did want to see it. But for us, what is important is to be looking at the essential nuclear operation of the plant. And this, we could see.
Speaker 1 (04:32):
That included evidence that rockets had come dangerously close to the reactors and other sensitive areas.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:40):
I was on the top of a building where they are storing fresh fuel, the fuel that is going to go into the reactors. And-
Speaker 1 (04:48):
Nuclear fuel is what we’re talking about.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:50):
Nuclear fuel. And I could see very big holes on that roof.
Speaker 1 (04:55):
On the roof?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (04:56):
Yeah. At least two, I saw. Very, very big.
Speaker 1 (05:00):
On a satellite photo, he also pointed out the switchyard where the electricity comes in from the town.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (05:07):
So this is where the external power comes to cool their reactors down. And this place was shelled several times. Several times. Which tells you that people knew exactly what they were doing.
Speaker 1 (05:22):
They were trying to cut off the power source.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (05:23):
They [inaudible 00:05:23] here, here. Exactly.
Speaker 1 (05:26):
Shelling also destroyed one of the plant’s office buildings. These pictures were given to us by Andre Toos, a plant spokesman who fled Ukraine after working four months under Russian occupation. So tell us what that was like working inside that plant under Russian occupation?
Speaker 5 (05:46):
Yes. Russian troops take all our top manager with gun and they do only what Russian troops want.
Speaker 1 (05:58):
Did you feel like a hostage?
Speaker 5 (06:01):
Yes. I feel like I am prisoner in this nuclear power plant. I cannot say nothing because they go with gun.
Speaker 1 (06:10):
There have been reports of imprisonments, kidnappings and torture of Ukrainian employees. The head of the plant was detained. Andre Toos told us about the pressure one of the safety inspectors felt.
Speaker 5 (06:24):
It’s his work to go and check some pumps, how it work, how parameter, what pressure, what temperature. But he go and Russian pump stay in front of him. It’s terrible. He cannot do his work. It’s to protect nuclear fuel, to control nuclear reaction.
Speaker 1 (06:44):
When you’re operating at a nuclear power plant and you’re under stress and you’re worried and you’re feeling threatened, doesn’t that lead to the possibility of human error?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (06:56):
Of course. Yes.
Speaker 1 (06:58):
And the shelling goes on.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (07:00):
And the shelling goes on. And this is why we have been trying. I have been pushing for the establishment of a protection zone, which is basically, don’t attack the plant.
It’s the president. Nice to meet you.
Speaker 1 (07:16):
He took his proposal to both President Zelensky in Kyiv and President Putin in a one-on-one meeting last month in St. Petersburg. Interestingly, you sat very close to him, actually, I think closer than you and I are right now.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (07:32):
Speaker 1 (07:33):
Would you say that he is familiar with what’s going on?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (07:37):
Speaker 1 (07:37):
At this nuclear plant?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (07:39):
He knows every detail of it, which was surprising to me. In my conversation with him, I could see that he had a very detailed knowledge, not only of the layout of the plant, but also and very importantly of the electrical access, the external power source. So-
Speaker 1 (07:58):
Where these things are being bombed.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (08:00):
… it is a facility that he knows that he knows very well
Speaker 1 (08:04):
Is Mr. Putin trying to use this plant as a weapon, and we know that he’s weaponized energy in this war because of the way he’s used oil and gas. It just raises the question whether this plant is seen in his mind as a way to squeeze the Ukrainians. Someone said to us the other day, this is his dirty bomb, this plant.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (08:31):
Yeah, but if you protect it, there’s no dirty bomb.
Speaker 1 (08:35):
On Monday, the day we met Grossi, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in Bali and condemned Putin’s threat to use a nuclear weapon. And in Turkey, CIA Director William Burns warned his Russian counterpart of the consequences of such a move. Here we are talking about the possibility of a dirty bomb or a real bomb. I mean this idea of nuclear Armageddon because countries are now throwing the idea of using a nuclear weapon. They’re just throwing it up in the air.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (09:12):
When you talk about using nuclear weapons as you could use this mortar or that howitzer or that. This is a completely different ballgame.
Speaker 1 (09:21):
So heads of state should not be throwing this around.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (09:25):
They should not be doing that.
Speaker 1 (09:28):
Rafael Grossi at 61 has been working to prevent the proliferation of nukes for almost four decades. He’s seen here with his fellow Argentinian Pope Francis and his children, seven daughters and one son.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (09:44):
Come on guys.
Speaker 1 (09:44):
We watched him coaching his son’s soccer team on a rare day off. He’s been particularly busy given the number of rogue states suspected of developing a bomb. How close is Iran to making a nuclear bomb?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (10:00):
At the current level of production of this enriched uranium, Iran has accumulated already enough material to have more than one device if they chose to that, but we don’t have any information that would indicate that Iran has a nuclear weapon program at the moment.
Speaker 1 (10:23):
Rafael Mariano Grossi (10:24):
Speaker 1 (10:25):
So if I said to you, have we reached the point of no return with Iran, is it time to just admit they’re a nuclear power?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (10:35):
No, we haven’t reached that point, but we need to work very hard so we don’t get there.
Speaker 1 (10:41):
Director General Grossi’s concerned about another country that has become a member of the nuclear club, North Korea, which is expected to conduct its first underground nuclear test since 2017. And that’s not the only issue on his plate in the Pacific. The Chinese are protesting the sale of eight nuclear submarines by the United States and Great Britain to Australia.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (11:08):
Speaker 1 (11:09):
The subs contain nuclear war material. Do you protest the sale?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (11:15):
If they want to do this, they have to have a special arrangement with us.
Speaker 1 (11:20):
And does Australia have a special arrangement with you?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (11:23):
We have started working on that, which means that we should be able to come to an agreement that would allow us to inspect this nuclear material in an appropriate way so that it is not diverted, used to make bombs.
Speaker 1 (11:42):
Do you think this agreement, if it should come to pass, would satisfy the Chinese? Have you talked to China and said-
Rafael Mariano Grossi (11:49):
But China has a very firm position against this. They have been very critical of it. They have even been very critical of me.
Speaker 1 (11:57):
There’s this issue of a double standard. If the sale was to Libya, the West would be screaming and that it’s Australia, they get a pass. Double standard question.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:11):
They may get their pass. They will not get mine until I have a satisfactory agreement.
Speaker 1 (12:19):
I want to go back to the nuclear power plant for one second into Zaporizhzhya. When I realized that a nuclear power plant was under attack, my mind can’t even-
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:31):
Speaker 1 (12:32):
… calibrate what this means.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:34):
Exactly. The demand for protection of the plant is very important. You don’t shell a nuclear power plant. You don’t storm a nuclear power plant.
Speaker 1 (12:45):
What about using a nuclear power plant as a military base?
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:49):
This is part of the agreement I have proposed.
Speaker 1 (12:51):
Yeah, but no one’s agreeing.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:54):
Speaker 1 (12:56):
Rafael Mariano Grossi (12:58):
Speaker 1 (12:58):
You’re always optimistic. This is you.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (13:01):
I must. Should I throw the towel if I do that? Can you imagine that? No.