KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – A team of UN inspectors headed for Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant Wednesday on a perilous and long-sought mission to save the site and prevent a disaster from the fighting raging around it.
Underscoring the danger, Kyiv and Moscow again accused each other of shelling the area around the complex overnight. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
Fighting in early March caused a brief fire at its training compound, and in recent days the factory has been temporarily taken offline due to damage to a transmission line, raising fears of a radiation leak or reactor meltdown. Authorities began distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
The complex 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 the plant as a shield, stockpiling weapons there and launching attacks around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the location.
For months, as the fighting raged, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded access to the plant for an unprecedented wartime mission, and world leaders demanded that the dog UN guard be allowed to inspect it.
As the convoy of UN-marked vans and SUVs finally arrives in the afternoon in the town of Zaporizhzhia, still some 120 kilometers (70 miles) by road from the plant, the head of the IAEA and mission chief Rafael Grossi said the “real work” will begin on Thursday. . He highlighted the challenges ahead.
“It is a mission to prevent a nuclear accident and to preserve this important – the largest, largest – nuclear power plant in Europe,” he said.
He said an initial tour will take a few days, after which “we’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on”. Grossi said he received “explicit guarantees” from Russia that the 14 experts would be able to do their job.
Grossi said he hoped the IAEA would be able to establish a “continuous presence” at the plant to protect it against an accident.
The world watched the progress of the mission with anxiety. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell renewed a call for Russia to completely demilitarize the area around the plant.
“They play games. They are playing with nuclear safety,” Borrell said. “We cannot play war games in the vicinity of a site like this.”
While the inspectors were on their way, Russian-backed local authorities accused Ukrainian forces of repeatedly shelling the grounds of the plant and the town where it is located, Enerhodar. They said drone strikes hit the factory’s administrative building and training center.
Yevhen Yevtushenko, head of administration in the Ukrainian town of Nikopol, across the Dnieper from the factory, accused the Russians of carrying out the attacks in an attempt to blame Ukraine.
Kyiv is seeking international help to regain control of the region.
“We believe the mission should be a very important step in returning (the plant) to Ukrainian government control by the end of the year,” said Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko.
In other developments:
— Russian Gazprom stopped the flow of natural gas by a major pipeline to Western Europe early Wednesday for what he said would be a three-day shutdown for routine maintenance. The German authorities questioned this explanation.
— EU countries have agreed to make it longer and more expensive for Russian citizens to obtain visas to enter the 27 nations bloc. They failed to reach consensus on an outright ban on tourists in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
– Ukrainian officials said automatic weapon fire was heard in the streets of southern Kherson and claimed Russian soldiers were searching homes for anti-Russian supporters. An upsurge in fighting in the Russian-occupied region this week sparked speculation that Ukraine was beginning a counteroffensive.
— Four people were killed and two injured in Russian rocket attacks over the past day in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine