UN inspectors head to Ukraine nuclear plant in war zone

·3 min read

KYIV (AP) — United Nations inspectors made their way across Ukraine early Wednesday toward the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, a mission to help secure the safety of the facility in the middle of a war zone and avoid a nuclear catastrophe.

Yet ominously, the Russia-backed local authorities claimed that Ukrainian forces shelled the territory of the plant and the nearby town of Enerhodar overnight. Both sides have accused each other of bombing the wider area for weeks now, increasing fears of an accident or radiation leak.

“We are going to a war zone. We are going to occupied territory,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said of the unprecedented mission for the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

“This is the first time, it’s the first time of anybody’s going to cross the front line,” he said, adding that he had received “explicit guarantees” from Russia that the mission of 14 experts would be able to work there.

But in a war of claims and counterclaims that are extremely hard to verify, the Moscow-installed local administration in Enerhodar said Wednesday that the Ukrainian troops have shelled the territory of the plant with 60 hits over the past 24 hours. The strikes included a drone attack on the plant’s administrative building, which was damaged. Another drone hit the plant’s training center, the administration said.

It said there were no casualties or release of radioactivity. It did little to assuage fears that the safety of the mission itself could be compromised. Ukraine on Tuesday already accused the Russians of bombing the planned access roads to the plant to try to encourage it to change route and move via the Russia-controlled areas instead.

The power plant has been occupied by Russian forces and operated by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the 6-month-old war.

The world was watching the mission's progress with anxiety. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell renewed a call to Russia for the area around the power plant to be fully demilitarized.

“They are playing games. They are gambling with the nuclear security,” Borrell told reporters in the Czech capital, Prague. “We cannot play war games in the neighborhood of a site like this.”

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko said on Wednesday that Moscow was continuing its obstructionist course. “We have information that they are now trying to hide their military presence, so they should check all of this," he said of the U.N. mission.

Kyiv is seeking international assistance to try and demilitarize the area.

“We think that the mission should be a very important step to return (the plant) to Ukrainian government control by the end of the year,” Galushchenko told The Associated Press.

If all goes well, the IAEA inspectors should reach the Zaporizhzhia region, 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of the Ukrainian capital, later Wednesday. The experts may have to pass through areas of active fighting, with no publicly announced cease-fire.

The plant was recently cut off temporarily from the electrical grid because of fire damage, causing a blackout in the region and heightening fears of a catastrophe in a country haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

Zaporizhzhia is a vital source of energy for Ukraine and remains connected to its power grid. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of shelling the wider region around the nuclear power plant and the risks are so severe that officials have begun distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.

Grossi met Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss the mission that is expected to last several days.

Energy dominated the early news Wednesday for another reason, when Russia’s Gazprom stopped the flow of natural gas through a major pipeline from to western Europe early Wednesday, a move it announced in advance and said was for routine maintenance.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Derek Gatopoulos, The Associated Press