By Tom Balmforth
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – United Nations inspectors arrived at the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday on a mission to prevent an accident at a nearby Russian-occupied nuclear power plant and to try to stabilise the situation after weeks of shelling in the vicinity.
A Reuters reporter following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team in a convoy from the capital Kyiv said the inspectors arrived in Zaporizhzhia, where they were likely to spend the night before visiting the plant, which is on territory controlled by Russia, on Thursday.
Russian-installed officials in the area near the power station suggested the visit might last only one day, while IAEA and Ukrainian officials suggested it would last longer.
“The mission will take a few days. If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it’s going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters at a hotel in Zaporizhzhia.
“We have a very important task there to perform – to assess the real situation there, to help stabilise the situation as much as we can,” he said, adding the IAEA team had guarantees from both Russia and Ukraine enabling it to enter the war zone.
Russia captured the plant, Europe’s largest, in early March as part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation”, which Kyiv and the West describe as an unprovoked invasion designed to grab land and erase Ukrainian identity.
A Russian military force has been at the plant ever since, as has most of the Ukrainian workforce who have toiled to continue running the facility, which traditionally supplied Ukraine with 20 percent of its electricity needs.
Fighting was reported both near the power station and further afield, with Kyiv and Moscow both claiming battlefield successes as Ukraine mounted a counter-offensive to recapture territory in the south. Reuters could not independently verify such reports.
Away from Ukraine, Russia halted gas supplies via Europe’s key supply route on Wednesday, intensifying an economic battle between Moscow and Brussels that could lead to recession and energy rationing in some of the region’s richest countries.
European Union foreign ministers decided on Wednesday to make it more expensive and lengthier for Russians to obtain visas to visit the bloc, but stopped short of agreeing an EU-wide visa ban that some member states had wanted.
For weeks now, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of endangering the plant’s safety with artillery or drone strikes and risking a Chornobyl-style radiation disaster.
Kyiv says Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns and cities, knowing it will be hard for Ukraine to return fire. It has also accused Russian forces of shelling the plant.
“The risk of a radiation disaster due to Russian actions does not decrease for an hour,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Tuesday.
The Russian defence ministry has said that radiation levels at the plant are normal.
Russia has denied Ukrainian assertions of reckless behaviour, questioning why it would shell a facility where its own troops are garrisoned as what it calls a security detail.
Moscow has accused the Ukrainians of shelling the plant to try to generate international outrage that Kyiv hopes will result in a demilitarised zone.
Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galuschenko said the IAEA inspection was a step towards “deoccupying and demilitarising” the site. Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.
Asked about plans for a demilitarised zone at the plant, Grossi said this was a matter of political will involving the countries engaged in the conflict.
“My mission is a technical mission. It’s a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident. And to preserve this important (nuclear power plant),” he said.
QUESTIONS AND DOUBTS
It was not clear how long the inspectors would be able to remain there however.
Russia said it welcomed the IAEA’s stated intention to set up a permanent mission at the plant. But Yevgeny Balitsky, head of the Russian-installed administration in the area, told the Interfax news agency the IAEA inspectors “must see the work of the station in one day”.
The United States has urged a complete shutdown of the plant and called for a demilitarised zone around it.
The plant is close to the frontlines and Ukraine’s armed forces on Wednesday accused Russia of shelling in the area and of preparing to resume an offensive there.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow.
In his late night address, Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces were attacking Russian positions in Ukraine along the entire frontline after Kyiv announced on Monday it had launched an offensive to try to retake the south. Zelenskiy said his forces were also on the offensive in the east.
Germany’s chief of defence General Eberhard Zorn meanwhile warned that the West must not underestimate Moscow’s military strength, saying Russia has the scope to open up a second front should it choose to do so.
Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine sees recapturing the region as crucial to prevent Russian attempts to seize more territory further west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.
Russia has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Andrew Osborn, Matthias Williams, William Maclean; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)
Members of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission stand by UN vehicles at hotel as they depart for visit to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in central Kyiv, Ukraine August 31, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich