U.N. inspectors try for access to Ukrainian nuclear plant despite fierce fighting

The company that oversees Ukraine’s nuclear power plants said shelling by Russian forces triggered a shutdown of one of the reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, underscoring the risks faced by a team of U.N. inspectors who were heading there Thursday to assess its safety.

A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, led by agency chief Rafael Grossi, set off for the Russian-held nuclear power plant — Europe’s largest — in southern Ukraine despite the heavy shelling for which Ukraine and Russia trade blame.

Ukraine’s Enerhoatom company said Russian mortar fire led to the shutdown of one of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors by its emergency protection system. Shelling also damaged a backup power-supply line used for in-house needs, and one of the plant’s reactors, which wasn’t operating, was switched to diesel generators, the company said.

“There has been increased military activity, including this morning until very recently,” Grossi said, adding that, after being briefed by the Ukrainian military he decided to head for the plant despite the risks. “But weighing the pros and cons and having come so far, we are not stopping.”

He noted that the risks are “very, very high” in the so-called gray zone between Ukrainian and Russian positions, but “we consider that we have the minimum conditions to move.”


An IAEA spokesman said later that the mission has been delayed on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the front line for some three hours. The spokesman added that Grossi “has personally negotiated with Ukrainian military authorities to be able to proceed, and he remains determined that this important mission reaches the ZNPP today.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the 6-month-old war. Ukraine alleges that Russia is using the plant as a shield, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the area.

Fighting in early March caused a brief fire at its training complex, and in recent days, the plant was temporarily knocked offline because of damage, heightening fears of a radiation leak or a reactor meltdown. Officials have begun distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.

“We have a very important mission to accomplish,” Grossi said, adding that “we are going to start immediately an assessment of the security and the safety situation at the plant.”

“I am going to consider the possibility of establishing a continued presence of the IAEA at the plant, which we believe is indispensable to stabilize the situation and to get regular, reliable, impartial, neutral updates of what the situation is there,” he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces unleashed an artillery barrage on the area and then sent a group of up to 60 scouts to try to seize control of the plant.

The ministry said the Ukrainian troops arrived in seven speedboats, landing about two miles northeast of the plant on the left bank of the Dnieper River, and tried to seize the plant. The ministry said Russian forces “took steps to destroy the enemy,” dispatching warplanes. Russia’s military said its forces also destroyed two barges carrying Ukrainian troops who attempted to land near the plant.

“The provocation by the Kyiv regime is intended to derail the arrival of the IAEA’s group at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” the ministry statement said.

Alexander Volga, head of the Russian-installed Enerhodar city administration, said the Ukrainian troops who attempted to land were “blocked and destroyed.” The administration also said at least three local residents were killed and one injured early Thursday from Ukrainian shelling.

He said the fighting had since abated and no “objective obstacles” remained to prevent the visit by the IAEA team, which had crossed a checkpoint in Russia-controlled territory and was expected to arrive soon in Enerhodar.

Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, accused Russia of shelling Enerhodar and the territory of the nuclear power plant in a false-flag attack intended to derail the arrival of the IAEA’s team.

“We are demanding that Russia stop provocations and offer the IAEA unhindered access to the Ukrainian nuclear facility,” said Zaporizhzhia Gov. Oleksandr Starukh.

Neither side’s version of events could immediately be independently verified.

The fighting came as war-torn Ukraine endeavored Thursday to start the new academic year in the best way possible, with civilian areas still under threat of artillery fire and other weaponry — and children still among the victims. Just over half of schools in Ukraine were reopening to in-person education despite the risks.

In the eastern region of Donetsk, the emergencies agency under the Moscow-backed separatist government said 13 emergency responders were killed and nine others were wounded Thursday by Ukrainian shelling in Rubtsi, a village to the east of the city of Izyum in neighboring Kharkiv province. Much of the fighting in recent weeks and months has centered on the area.