Russia fixing power line from Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to land it controls, IAEA says

FILE PHOTO: IAEA expert mission visits Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

VIENNA (Reuters) - Russia has informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog that equipment spotted at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russia controls, will be used to fix a power transmission line that leads to Russian-held territory, the watchdog said on Friday.

The planned restoration of the downed power line could heighten Ukrainian fears that Russia is preparing to connect Zaporizhzhia, Europe's largest nuclear power plant, to the power grid of territory that it controls.

A small number of International Atomic Energy Agency officials are present at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), which is operated by Ukrainian staff working under the orders of Russian forces and the Russian nuclear company Rosatom.

"The (IAEA) Team observed, and following questions were subsequently informed, that a large piece of equipment being transported into the turbine hall of Unit 3 was a transformer to replace the damaged 'Kakhovka' node in the ZNPP open switchyard," the IAEA said in a statement.

"The Kakhovka line is one of the four 750 kV (kilovolt) lines that were operational before the military conflict. This line is linked to the currently Russian-controlled electrical grid, to the south of the ZNPP site," it added.

Only one of those four power lines is currently working and is the only source of external power to the plant, which it needs to keep cooling the fuel in its six reactors even though they are shut down. Failing to cool that fuel could lead to a potentially catastrophic nuclear meltdown.

The IAEA said it also had not had access to the switchyard at a nearby thermal power plant (TPP) that can supply backup power to Zaporizhzhia. The IAEA last visited that switchyard in December, when damage from shelling was observed.

"Two weeks ago the team was informed that access would be granted in the coming days. It is important that ISAMZ (the IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia) gets the necessary access to the ZTPP open switchyard given the implications on nuclear safety and security at ZNPP."

(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by William Maclean)