UN inspectors to visit Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest nuclear facility – as they seek to protect the site amid artillery bombardment that has sparked global disaster fears.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, 55 km (34 miles) from the plant, on Wednesday, and Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said inspectors were due to tour the facility on Thursday.
For weeks, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of endangering the security of the Zaporizhzhia plant with bombings or drone strikes, risking a Chernobyl-type radioactive disaster.
Kyiv says Russia is using the plant as a shield for its forces to strike at towns and villages, knowing it will be difficult for Ukraine to retaliate. He also accused Russian forces of bombing the factory.
Russia has denied Ukrainian claims of reckless behavior, questioning why it would bomb a facility where its own troops are garrisoned as what it calls a security detail.
Arriving in the city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday afternoon, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said the “real work” would begin on Thursday. He highlighted the challenges ahead.
“It is a mission to prevent a nuclear accident and to preserve this important – the biggest, the biggest – nuclear power plant in Europe,” he said.
According to him, a first tour will take a few days, after which “we’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on”.
The complex has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the six-month war and world leaders have demanded that the IAEA be allowed to inspect it.
The Russian Defense Ministry said radiation levels at the plant were normal.
Grossi said he received “explicit guarantees” from Russia that the 14 experts would be able to do their job.
Grossi also said he hoped the IAEA would be able to establish a “continuous presence” at the plant to protect it against an accident.
The team’s work at the site, he added, will include a physical inspection of the premises, the operation of the safety system and interviews with nuclear plant personnel.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to the international organization in Vienna, welcomed the idea that the UN agency’s experts could stay on the site permanently.
While Ukraine sees the IAEA inspection as a step towards “deoccupying and demilitarising” the site, Russia has said it has no plans to withdraw its forces for now, thus creating additional potential for resentment.
“If they (the IAEA) write a report on the violations and hand it over to Ukraine to fix it, we can’t do it as long as the Russian army is there,” said the Ukrainian minister. of Energy, German Galushchenko.
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 attacks hit the factory’s administration 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.
Fight for Kherson
Meanwhile, fighting continues on the ground, with Ukrainian officials saying they have achieved ‘success’ in three areas of the Russian-occupied Kherson region, two days after Kyiv announced the start of an attack in the south . counteroffensive to regain territory.
Yuriy Sobolevskyi, the deputy head of the Kherson regional council, told Ukrainian state TV that Ukrainian troops had achieved successes in Kherson, Berislav and Kakhovka districts, but declined to give details.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said it should be noted that the frontline has been very stable in recent weeks.
“None of them [Russian and Ukrainian] the forces have been able to achieve major achievements, so we’re going to have to see if Ukraine has enough arms and manpower to be able to liberate many of these cities that have been occupied by Russia “, she said.
The Russian Defense Ministry disputed Ukraine’s claims of successes in the south, pointing out that Ukrainian forces had instead suffered heavy losses in equipment and men.
In its daily briefing, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces shot down three Ukrainian helicopters and Ukraine lost four fighter jets during two days of fighting around the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih front line and in other regions of southern Ukraine.
Reuters news agency and Al Jazeera could not verify reports from the battlefield.