ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — A United Nations inspection team entered Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday as part of a mission to protect it from disaster, reaching the site amid fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces which shut down a reactor and underlined the urgency of the task.
The 14-member delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in a convoy of SUVs and pickup trucks after months of negotiations to allow experts to cross front lines and get inside the most largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
“The IAEA is now there at the factory and it is not moving. He will stay there. We’re going to have an ongoing presence there at the plant with some of my experts,” IAEA Director Rafael Grossi, the mission chief, said after the group got their first glimpse of conditions at the facility. inside.
But he added: “I will continue to worry about the factory until we have a more stable situation.”
As the experts walked through the war zone towards the compound, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of bombing the area and trying to derail the visit. The fighting delayed the team’s progress.
“There were times when the fire was obvious – heavy machine guns, artillery, mortars two or three times were really very concerning, I would say, to all of us,” Grossi said.
Just before the IAEA team’s arrival, Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear energy company, said Russian mortar fire caused one of its reactors to shut down by its protection system emergency and had damaged an emergency power supply line used for internal needs.
One of the plant’s reactors that was not working was replaced with diesel generators, Energoatom said.
Once inside the plant, Grossi said, his experts were able to tour the entire site, including control rooms, emergency systems and diesel generators. He said he met factory staff and residents of the nearby village, Energodar, who asked him for help from the agency.
He said the team had gathered important information during their initial inspection and would remain there to continue their assessment.
“It is obvious that the factory and the physical integrity of the factory have been violated several times by chance, deliberately – we do not have the elements to assess this,” Grossi said. “And that’s why we’re trying to put in place certain mechanisms and the presence, as I said, of our people there.”
The Zaporizhzhia plant has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the 6-month war. Ukraine alleges that Russia is using it as a shield to launch attacks, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of firing recklessly into the area.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had harsh words for the IAEA delegation. While applauding his arrival at the factory, he said independent journalists were barred from covering the visit, allowing the Russians to portray a one-sided “futile visit”.
And he said that while Grossi has agreed to back Ukrainian demands for the demilitarization of the plant — including the withdrawal of Russian forces from it — the IAEA has yet to publicly issue such a call.
Fighting in early March caused a brief fire at its training complex, and in recent days the plant has been briefly taken out of service due to damage, heightening fears of a radioactive leak or a reactor meltdown. Authorities began distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
Experts have also expressed concern that Ukrainian staff are overworked and stressed by the occupation of the factory by Russian forces – conditions which they say could lead to dangerous mistakes.
Grossi said after his first tour that the Ukrainian employees are “in a difficult situation, but they have an incredible degree of professionalism. And I see them calming down and moving on.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expected “impartiality” from the team.
“We are taking all necessary steps to ensure that the factory is secure, that it is operating safely and that the mission is carrying out all of its plans there,” he said.
Prior to the visit, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that Ukrainian forces had unleashed an artillery barrage on the area and sent a group of 60 scouts to try to seize the factory on the Dnieper. He said Ukrainian troops arrived in seven speedboats but Russian forces “took steps to destroy the enemy”, using warplanes.
Some of the Ukrainian shells landed 400 meters (yards) from the plant’s No. 1 reactor, Russian authorities said.
The Russian-installed administration in Enerhodar reported that at least three residents were killed early Thursday by Ukrainian shelling.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, accused Russian forces of shelling Enerhodar and a corridor the IAEA team was to pass through.
Neither side’s version of events could immediately be independently verified.
The fighting broke out as Ukraine struggled start the new school year in the midst of war. Just over half of the country’s schools are reopening face-to-face lessons despite the risks.
In other developments, authorities of the Russian-backed separatist government in the eastern region of Donetsk said 13 emergency responders were killed by Ukrainian shelling in Rubtsi, a village in neighboring Kharkiv province. Much of the fighting in recent weeks and months has focused on the region.
Gatopoulos reported from Kyiv, Ukaine.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine