Team from UN nuclear watchdog to inspect Ukraine power plant

A team from the UN’s nuclear watchdog is heading to Ukraine to inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has come under repeated fire, raising fears of a catastrophic accident at the site that has become a key battleground in the war.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Monday that a mission to the plant, which he would lead, was en route and would arrive this week, after frantic diplomatic efforts to secure its passage through the war-torn country.

“The day has come, [IAEA’s] Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) is now on its way,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility. Proud to lead this mission which will be in ZNPP later this week.”

Europe’s largest atomic plant was captured by Russian troops in March but is still operated by Ukrainian staff, and has become a flashpoint in the more than six-month-long conflict, with both sides accusing each other of artillery attacks that threaten the stability of its reactors.

The IAEA said the mission would assess damage to the site, determine the functionality of safety and security systems, evaluate the conditions of the plant’s staff and “perform urgent safeguard activities”.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to international organisations in Vienna, told state newswire RIA Novosti the delegation included about 15 IAEA nuclear security specialists and a UN logistics and security team.

He said Grossi wanted to “leave several people” at Zaporizhzhia “on a full- time basis”, without giving further details.

Russia has stationed troops and heavy weapons in and around the plant in southern Ukraine, a decision that western capitals say risks a nuclear catastrophe. A senior US military official on Monday said the US believes “with great confidence that the Russians are firing from the area around the nuclear plant…and using the nuclear power plant to store a bunch of their equipment.”

Ukraine and its western backers have repeatedly called on Russia to withdraw its military from the facility and return control to Kyiv. A senior US defence official said the US believes “the safest outcome would be a controlled shutdown” of the plant’s reactors. “This would be the least risky course of action in the near term.”

The official said US scientists are monitoring the power plant and have seen no indications of increased or abnormal radiation levels so far.

Moscow has blamed Ukraine for the skirmishes around the plant, while Kyiv has accused Moscow of carrying out the shelling.

“All countries must put pressure on the Ukrainian side so that they stop putting the continent of Europe in danger by shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and the surrounding territories,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to Interfax.

The IAEA delegation will access the plant from Ukrainian-controlled territory, Peskov said, after which Russia will “ensure security at the required level” once it reaches the facility.

Peskov said Russia had “long waited for” the visit and thought it was “essential”.

Hours after the IAEA mission was announced, an adviser in Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration posted a video via Twitter showing civilian cars in flames after shelling in Energodar, the southern Ukrainian city where the nuclear plant is located.

In the Twitter message, Mykhailo Podolyak accused Russian forces of conducting “cynical and systematic shelling of Energodar” in a provocation to create a “specially organised bloody show, the purpose of which is to intimidate local civilians, blaming Ukraine’s Armed Forces and mask their ‘nuclear’ crimes”.

Olga Kosharna, a Ukrainian nuclear expert who previously worked for the country’s state regulatory authority, said on a scale of worry that ranked from one to 10, her fears about the safety of the plant were at level six.

“It would rise to seven if the nuclear power plant lost its external power supply again [to pump water coolant around the nuclear reactors] as there is a danger that the back-up diesel generators might not work.”

Explosions near the plant’s switchboard this month caused the shutdown of its electrical power transformer and damaged radiation detectors at the site. Last week it was hit by shelling that disconnected it from the Ukrainian electricity grid for the first time.

Grossi said on Sunday that “all safety systems remained operational and there had been no increase in radiation levels” following the artillery attacks around the plant in recent days.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power enterprise, said on Monday that Russian troops “continued to fire” at Energodar and Zaporizhzhia, injuring 10 people, of which four were workers at the plant.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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