IAEA team ‘on its way’ to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

UN inspectors have sought access to site for months fearing fighting near facility could cause nuclear catastrophe.

A team of investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, will soon gain long-sought access to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, according to the agency.

On Monday, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi tweeted that the mission to the plant is “now on its way”. The announcement included an image of 13 staff members and appeared to be taken at the VIP terminal of Vienna airport.

“We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility,” Grossi said. “Proud to lead this mission which will be in #ZNPP later this week.”

The trip is set to cap months of negotiations surrounding access to the plant, which Russia seized shortly after invading Ukraine on February 24.

Fighting around the facility, which is located in the town of Enerhoder in southeastern Ukraine, has raised concerns of a nuclear catastrophe.

Those concerns have specifically focused on fears of damage to the plant’s infrastructure, which contains six Soviet-designed water-cooled reactors containing uranium 235, as well as interruptions to the plant’s power source, which could lead to overheating and possible explosions.

Fears of radiation release have already prompted authorities to administer iodine tablets to nearby residents.

Both Russia and Ukraine have blamed the other for attacks near the facility, with Ukraine alleging that Russia is using the area around the plant as a shield to store weapons and launch attacks. The UN and Kyiv have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the plant to ensure it is not a target in the conflict. Moscow has accused Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.

Attacks were reported over the weekend both in Russian-controlled territory adjacent to the plant along the left bank of the Dnieper River and along the Ukraine-controlled right bank, including the cities of Nikopol and Marhanets, each about 10km (six miles) from the facility.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s atomic energy agency painted an ominous picture of the threat by issuing a map forecasting where radiation could spread from the Zaporizhzhia plant.

At the time, the IAEA reported that radiation levels were currently normal around the plant, that two of the plant’s six reactors were operating and that while no complete assessment had yet been made, recent fighting had damaged a water pipeline, which has since been repaired.

In a tweet on Monday, the IAEA said its inspectors would “assess physical damage”, “perform urgent safeguards activity” and evaluate conditions for the Ukrainian staff that continue to run the facility.

Further details on the IAEA mission to the plant were not immediately released.

The mission to the Zaporizhzhia plant will be the agency’s hardest to date, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on Monday.

“This mission will be the hardest in the history of the IAEA, given the active combat activities undertaken by the Russian Federation on the ground and also the very blatant way that Russia is trying to legitimise its presence”, Kuleba said during a visit to Stockholm.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to the international organisations in Vienna, said on Monday that Moscow welcomes the mission and that Russia had made a significant contribution to the visit, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

“We hope that the visit of the IAEA mission to the station will dispel numerous speculation about the [allegedly] unfavourable state of affairs at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Ulyanov was cited as saying.

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