IAEA team heads to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

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KYIV, Aug 31 (Reuters) – A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) left the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to inspect the damage after nearby shelling raised fears of a radioactive disaster.

Russian forces captured the factory shortly after launching their invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and it is near the front lines. Russia and Ukraine traded accusations of shelling that endangered the plant.

A Reuters witness said the IAEA team left Kyiv in a convoy of vehicles. The mission is led by IAEA chief Rafael Grossi and comes after lengthy negotiations.

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“We are finally moving after six months of hard work,” Grossi told reporters before the convoy set off, adding that the mission planned to spend “a few days” at the site.

“We have a very important job to do there – to assess the real situations there, to help stabilize the situation as much as possible.”

It was unclear when the IAEA team would reach Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and when it would carry out its inspection. Both warring sides have reported regular shelling in the surrounding area in recent days.

“We are going to a war zone, we are going to an occupied territory and that requires explicit guarantees, not only from the Russian Federation but also from Ukraine. We were able to get that,” Grossi said.

He said the IAEA hoped to set up a permanent mission at the plant, which is run by Ukrainian technicians. Grossi said one of the mission’s priorities would be to talk to them.

“It’s one of the most important things I want to do and I will do it,” he said.

The United States called for the plant to be completely closed and called for a demilitarized zone around it.

The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian government official in Zaporizhzhia as saying on Wednesday that two of the plant’s six reactors were working.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Russian-installed administration, told Interfax that IAEA inspectors “must see the station’s work within a day.”

Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russia of bombing a corridor that IAEA officials are expected to use to reach the plant in order to transport them through Russia-acceded Crimea. There was no immediate response from Russia.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that Russia was attacking with tanks, rockets and artillery along a line of contact in the Zaporizhzhia region – part of it, including the city of Zaporizhzhia , remains under the control of Ukraine.

“The enemy is regrouping units of the 3rd Army Corps (…) with the aim of resuming the offensive in the direction (of Zaporizhzhia),” he added.

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Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Written by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel

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