Russia’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Takeover Spirals With Kidnapping of Top Employee Valery Martyniuk

Russia has kidnapped another employee of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant this week, according to Energoatam, Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company.

It’s just the latest hostile action Moscow has reportedly taken in its efforts to control the nuclear power plant, which was seized early on in the war in Ukraine. While Russia controls the plant, Ukrainian operators continue to keep the plant going, sometimes under threat of violence.

This time, the Russians reportedly kidnapped the plant’s deputy director general for human resources, Valery Martyniuk. According to Energoatam, Moscow likely wants to devise ways to transition the employees of the plant to officially work for Russia’s nuclear power supplier, Rosatom, and may be torturing the official.

Leaders of the Group of Seven nations condemned Russia’s volatile actions at the plant, including “pressure exerted on the personnel of the facility,” in a joint statement Tuesday.

The news comes just weeks after the Kremlin sought to illegally annex four regions in Ukraine, including Zaporizhzhia, to claim them as Russian territory. The United States and other world powers have rejected the annexations as illegal and illegitimate.

The kidnapping fits a pattern of abuse and violence at the plant that Russia has been deploying for months. It wouldn’t be the first time that Russians have taken hostage an employee of the plant, which has tottered on the brink of nuclear disaster as Moscow has sought to take over swaths of land in Ukraine. Plant workers have said in previous months that Russians have kidnapped plant workers and held them for ransom, The Wall Street Journal reported. Late last month Russian military personnel also kidnapped Igor Murashov, then the director general of the plant, by forcing him from his car.

The kidnapping of Murashov threatened the safety of the plant, according to the head of Energoatom, Petro Kotin, since Murashov was responsible for the radiation safety of the operation.

Murashov was released three days later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed. An investigation has been opened into the incident, according to Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General.

International authorities have sought to rein in the potential for nuclear catastrophe for months. After negotiating an entry into the plant earlier this year, the IAEA installed two observers at the plant in order to monitor safety.

But the safety of the plant is all but certain. Early this month shelling around the plant cut off the plant’s power, which could have jeopardized the plant’s cooling processes used to prevent a meltdown. The plant switched to emergency diesel generators to avert catastrophe.

The work to ease tensions is not done yet. The IAEA has been calling for a Nuclear Safety and Security Protection Zone (NSSPZ) to be created around the plant. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reiterated this need Tuesday in a statement.

“Now more than ever, during these extremely difficult times, a protection zone must be established,” Grossi said. “We can’t afford to lose more time. We must do everything in our power to help ensure that a nuclear accident does not happen during this tragic conflict.”

Grossi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday in St. Petersburg to discuss safety and security protocols that can be established at the plant. He is also slated to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later this week in Kyiv, his office said.

“The situation in the region around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and elsewhere has become increasingly dangerous, precarious and challenging, with frequent military attacks that can also threaten nuclear safety and security,” Grossi said.

But it’s not clear if Grossi will intervene over a forced switch to Rosatom. Grossi said in recent days that he considered the plant to belong to Ukraine, not Russia, but reportedly indicated that he cannot necessarily interfere with a transition to Rosatom.

“I can neither boycott or play along, I have to do the right thing and the right thing in this case is first of all to look after the security, the safety and the well-being of the staff and, when it comes to the contractual changes that may be coming as a result of the announcement, that is something that I will have to be discussing in Russia,” Grossi said.

The IAEA did not return a request for comment about whether Grossi and Putin discussed the latest kidnapping and concerns about Rosatom this week.

Although the hostile takeover at the plant is ongoing, world leaders have hesitated to take action against Rosatom specifically, even as they have issued numerous rounds of sanctions against other Russian entities backing Moscow’s war against Ukraine in an effort to kneecap war funding.

The Biden administration considered sanctioning Rosatom in March, according to Reuters.

Sanctioning Rosatom, though, has proven to be a labyrinth of no-go zones, and Rosatom remains unscathed. The United States sources 14 percent of its uranium and nearly 28 percent of its enrichment services from Russia, according to the US Energy Information Administration statistics from 2021, the latest available.

Lobbyists have also reportedly urged the White House to avoid sanctioning Rosatom to keep electricity prices low, Reuters reported.

It’s bad optics and bad image.

But working with Rosatom is akin to funding Russia’s war effort and ought to be checked, according to Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, the head of the Energy Department at Ecoaction or Ekodía, a Ukrainian NGO.

“Russian state companies and nuclear state company Rosatom is actually like one of the arms of the military because they use it to control our nuclear power plants… [and] paying huge amounts of money for Russian nuclear fuel, for uranium, for nuclear technologies, and all this money, they go into the Russian budget and then allocate to the war effort,” Krynytskyi told The Daily Beast.

Rosatom’s engagement at the plant, and apparent efforts to force personnel to work for Rosatom should be a wakeup call for the United States and other world leaders, he said.

“We need, indeed, severe economic consequences, but even symbolically, when Rosatom occupies the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and it shows a case of nuclear terrorism in the world, and then [without] sanctions,” Krynytskyi said. “It’s bad optics and bad image… There is no real reaction to that.”

President Zelensky has urged world leaders to impose sanctions on Russia’s nuclear sector as well.

“Russian nuclear terror requires a stronger response from the international community—[place] sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry and nuclear fuel,” Zelensky said in August.

Reliance on Russian uranium won’t be disappearing overnight, even though US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said that becoming independent of Russia in this arena is a “national security” imperative. But the reality is that the enrichment capacity in the United States isn’t ready to meet the demand that Russia currently fills, Dan Leistikow, a vice president at Centrus Energy Corp., a company working on constructing an enrichment facility in the United States, told The Daily Beast.

“There isn’t nearly enough non-Russian enrichment to fuel the world’s reactors,” Leistikow told The Daily Beast.

The Biden administration is still pushing for the $1.5 billion plan, as it could be key to backstopping any interruptions in Russian supply, a Department of Energy spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

“This could be an urgent issue should Russian supply be disrupted and the $1.5B would incentivize new enrichment/conversion capacity to minimize the existing reliance,” the spokesperson said.

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