UN inspectors collect data from Ukraine nuclear plant, plan continued presence

A team from the UN nuclear agency arrived Thursday at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, to inspect security conditions that forced the shutdown of one reactor.

Team's work at Russian-held complex expected to continue until Saturday

IAEA team arrives at Zaporizhzhia power plant

1 year ago
Duration 0:39
A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to investigate and assess the risk of a radiation disaster. Both Ukraine and Russia are accusing each other of various military operations in the area.

A UN inspection team arrived at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant Thursday on a mission to safeguard it from catastrophe, reaching the site amid fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces that prompted the shutdown of one reactor and underscored the urgency and danger of the task.

The visit from the 14-member expert delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came after months of negotiations to get inside Europe's biggest nuclear plant. 

"The IAEA is now there at the plant and it's not moving. It's going to stay there. We're going to have a continued presence there at the plant with some of my experts," Rafael Grossi, the mission leader, declared after the group got its first look at conditions inside.

But he added: "I will continue to be worried about the plant until we have a situation which is more stable."

As the experts made their way through the war zone toward the complex, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of shelling the area and trying to derail the visit. The fighting delayed the team's progress.

"There were moments when fire was obvious — heavy machine guns, artillery, mortars at two or three times were really very concerning, I would say, for all of us," Grossi said.

A man opens a car door.
UN vehicles carrying members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection mission prepare to leave the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Thursday and head to a Russian-held nuclear power plant on the banks of the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

High risks in war zone

Just before the IAEA team arrived, Energoatom, Ukraine's state nuclear power company, said Russian mortar shelling had led to the shutdown of one of its reactors by its emergency protection system and had damaged a backup power supply line used for in-house needs.

One of the plant's reactors that wasn't operating was switched to diesel generators, Energoatom said.

Once inside the plant, Grossi said, his experts were able to tour the entire site, including control rooms, emergency systems and diesel generators. He said he met with the plant's staff and residents of the nearby village, Energodar, who asked him for help from the agency.

He reported that the team had collected important information in its initial inspection and will remain there to continue its assessment.

"It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times by chance, deliberately — we don't have the elements to assess that," Grossi said. "And this is why we are trying to put in place certain mechanisms and the presence, as I said, of our people there."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expects "impartiality" from the team.

"We are taking all the necessary measures to ensure that the plant is secure, that it functions safely and that the mission accomplishes all of its plans there," he said.

Zelenskyy critical of IAEA

Zaporizhzhia has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the six-month-old war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had tough words for the IAEA delegation. While applauding its arrival at the plant, he said independent journalists were kept from covering the visit, allowing the Russians to present a one-sided, "futile tour."

And he said that while Grossi agreed to support Ukrainian demands for the demilitarization of the plant — including the withdrawal of Russian forces from it — the IAEA has yet to issue such a call publicly.

Ukraine alleges 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, raising the threat of a nuclear disaster that may affect the entire continent.

Fears of leak, meltdown

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.

IAEA spokesperson Michael Amdi Madsen said earlier in the week that the team would assess damage to the plant, determine the state of its main and backup safety systems and evaluate the control room staff's working conditions.

Experts have expressed concern that the staff is overworked and stressed out from the occupation of the plant by Russian forces, raising the risk of a dangerous error.

Ahead of the visit, Russia's Defence Ministry said that Ukrainian forces unleashed an artillery barrage of the area and then sent a group of up to 60 scouts to try to seize control of the nuclear plant.

WATCH | Grossi says inspectors will stay put at nuclear power plant: 

Assessing the risk of nuclear disaster in Ukraine

1 year ago
Duration 3:08
A team of UN inspectors went to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to assess the site as part of efforts to prevent a potential nuclear disaster. But critics say the plant will never be safe while Russian attacks continue.

It said that the Ukrainian troops arrived in boats, landing three kilometres northeast of the plant on the left bank of the Dnieper River and tried to seize it. The ministry said that the Russian forces "took steps to destroy the enemy," engaging warplanes.

"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 said in a statement.

The Russia-installed administration of the city of Enerhodar just outside the plant said that at least three local residents were killed and one was injured early Thursday by the Ukrainian shelling.

Ukrainian authorities 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 Ukraine endeavoured to start the new school year in the middle of a war. Just over half of the country's schools are reopening to in-person classes despite the risks.