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Nuclear watchdog says mission to Ukraine power plant ‘on its way'

Ukrainian flags to honor soldiers killed fighting Russian troops, are placed in a garden in Kiev's Independence Square, Ukraine, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Paul rne, Associated Press

The United Nations nuclear watchdog injected a ray of hope into the stand-off over Ukraine’s beleaguered Zaporizhzhia atomic power plant on Monday, announcing that its mission of top experts “is now on its way” to the facility, which has seen relentless shelling as a focal point in the war with Russia.

International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi has for months sought access to the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s biggest, which has been occupied by Russian forces and run by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the six-month-old war.

His announcement came hours after Russia and Ukraine traded claims of rocket and artillery strikes at or near the plant on Sunday, intensifying fears that the fighting could cause a massive radiation leak. Under the barrage of shelling last week, the facility was already temporarily knocked offline.

“The day has come,” Mr Grossi wrote on Twitter, adding that the Vienna-based IAEA’s “Support and Assistance Mission … is now on its way.”

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

Mr Grossi, who did not provide a more precise timeline or give further details, posted a picture of himself with 13 other experts.

Ukraine has alleged that Russia is essentially holding the plant hostage, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility. The Zaporizhzhia plant has six reactors.

The IAEA tweeted that the mission will assess physical damage to the facility, “determine functionality of safety & security systems” and evaluate staff conditions, among other things.

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

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 six miles (10km) from the facility.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had attacked the plant twice over the past day, and that shells fell near buildings storing reactor fuel and radioactive waste.

“One projectile fell in the area of the sixth power unit, and the other five in front of the sixth unit pumping station, which provides cooling for this reactor,” he said, adding that radiation levels were normal.

The IAEA reported on Sunday that radiation levels were normal, that two of the Zaporizhzhia plant’s six reactors were operating, and that, while no complete assessment had yet been made, recent fighting had damaged a water pipeline, since repaired.

In another apparent attack on Sunday, Russian forces shot down an armed Ukrainian drone targeting one of the Zaporizhzhia plant’s spent fuel storage sites, a local official said.

Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed regional official, said on the Telegram messaging app that the drone crashed on a building’s roof, but did not cause any significant damage or injure anyone.

Nearby, heavy firing during the night left parts of Nikopol without electricity, said Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Rocket strikes damaged a dozen residences in Marhanets, according to Yevhen Yevtushenko, the administration head for the district that includes the city of about 45,000 residents.

The city of Zaporizhzhia, about 25 miles (40km) up the Dnieper River from the nuclear plant, also came under Russian fire, damaging dozens of apartment buildings and homes and wounding two people, city council member Anatoliy Kurtev said.

Russian forces struck a Zaporizhzhia repair shop for Ukrainian air force helicopters, defence spokesman Mr Konashenkov said.

Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.