Russia has been left increasingly isolated at the UN’s nuclear watchdog as Ukraine's allies dominate its ruling board.
A Czech diplomat was on Monday elected chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors, putting an Eastern European in charge at a time of fear in the region over the possibility of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
Concern about the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in south-eastern Ukraine grew stronger after its manager Ihor Murashov was apparently detained, although the IAEA said on Monday that he had been released.
When the IAEA last month condemned Russia’s seizure of nuclear plants and backed Ukraine’s call for a safety zone at Zaporizhzhia, Russia could find only one ally, China, willing to vote with it on the 35-member board.
Poland is pushing to kick Russia off the board altogether, but the IAEA’s statutes mean it is virtually guaranteed a spot, in what US ambassador Laura Holgate described as a “real challenge” to the agency’s governance.
“We saw when they tried to do votes during various issues last week, during the general conference, that they had a very small number of supporters in voting,” Ms Holgate told The National.
“They were often the only country expressing a concern in the context of consensus activity. So, they remain isolated.
“At the same time, they remain on the board as more or less permanent members of the board.”
The IAEA faces the twin challenges of the war in Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear programme. The agency says it cannot be sure Iran’s activities are peaceful until it receives answers about unexplained uranium traces.
Russia’s involvement in the talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal adds another complication to nuclear diplomacy. Moscow has taken Tehran’s side in recent discussions.
Monday’s board meeting in Vienna was mainly devoted to internal affairs, but some diplomats used an “any other business” section to raise fresh concerns about the situation in Ukraine.
Moscow and Kyiv blame each other for shelling near Zaporizhzhia.
Russian troops also caused alarm by occupying the site of the Chernobyl disaster, north of Kyiv, in the invasion’s early stages.
“The IAEA is operating under unprecedented and most demanding circumstances caused by the Russian Federation’s war of aggression,” one EU diplomat said.
“We cannot emphasise strongly enough that this is unacceptable behaviour from a member state which continues to hold a privileged role at the IAEA and its bodies.”
Ms Holgate said it was too early to say whether Russia’s supposed annexation of Zaporizhzhia region would make any difference on the ground, but said there were few signs of the situation improving.
The apparent detention of Mr Murashov violated at least two of the IAEA’s seven pillars of nuclear safety, the board was told.
“Having a clear chain of command and having personnel operate without fear or duress — those are very essential attributes of nuclear security and nuclear safety,” Ms Holgate said.
IAEA director general Rafael Grossi plans to travel to Moscow and Kyiv this week, as he lobbies for a safe zone at Zaporizhzhia.
The Czech Republic, which strongly condemned Russia’s behaviour at Zaporizhzhia and currently represents the EU on the board, had its ambassador Ivo Sramek elected as board chairman on Monday.
The chair was expected to fall to Eastern Europe under a system of regional rotation.
Although the chair is formally neutral, they have some leeway to interpret IAEA rules and are unlikely to take Russia’s side on any points of dispute.
Dana Drabova, the chair of the Czech office for nuclear safety, told IAEA delegates last week that Russia’s actions in Ukraine “pose serious and direct threats to nuclear safety”.
“A nuclear accident must not be added to the tragedy of this war,” she said.
Members who joined the board on Monday included EU members Denmark and Bulgaria. The Danish embassy in Vienna told The National that global nuclear non-proliferation architecture was “deeply challenged”.
Russia’s outspoken ambassador to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, said there had been “heated debates” in recent board meetings on Ukraine, Iran and a UK-US-Australia pact on nuclear submarines.
The board’s resolution last month condemning Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine won support from 26 out of 35 members. Only Russia and China voted against, with seven countries abstaining.
On Iran, western powers rallied 56 countries behind a non-binding statement criticising Tehran’s “insufficient co-operation” with IAEA inquiries. Russia did not sign on to that motion either.
It follows a pattern of Russian isolation in various international bodies. On Monday, Russia and its ally Belarus were voted off the council of the International Telecommunications Union, which oversees the internet.
Russia last week lost a power struggle with the US for control of the ITU. It has similarly been outvoted in UN General Assembly resolutions and was removed from the Council of Europe, a human rights body, in March.