U.N. watchdog optimistic about Ukraine nuclear plant protection

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant outside Enerhodar

YUZHNOUKRAINSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Monday he hoped to make progress on a safe zone deal around the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine, but stressed it was a tough negotiation.

Russian forces in March captured the Soviet-era plant, Europe's largest, soon after their invasion of Ukraine. It has repeatedly come under fire in recent months, raising fears of a nuclear disaster.

"The situation around the plant continues to be very, very dangerous," Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told reporters during a visit to Ukraine. "A nuclear accident, an accident with serious radiological consequences, is in nobody's interest."

Russia downplayed the IAEA's visit and its powers.

"The IAEA has neither statutory, nor technological, nor other capabilities to prevent a nuclear catastrophe in the event of attacks on nuclear power plants," Renat Karchaa, an adviser to the CEO of Russian state energy organisation Rosenergoatom, told Russian state TASS news agency on Tuesday.

"Therefore, from this point of view, the presence of IAEA inspectors at all nuclear power plants is ineffective and is in a greater part politically motivated."

Grossi, who said he hoped to meet in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other officials, acknowledged that brokering a protection zone was taking longer than expected.

"No one wants to have this zone if it is considered ... a military advantage for one side or the other, and I am trying to convince everybody this is not the case," he said. "It's about preventing a nuclear accident."

Grossi was making his sixth visit to Ukraine since the February invasion to implement recently announced plans for a continuous presence of nuclear safety experts at all of Ukraine's nuclear facilities.

He visited the South Ukraine plant near the city of Yuzhnoukrainsk, about 350 km (220 miles) south of Kyiv, and was also scheduled to visit plants at Chornobyl and Rivne, establishing a two-person team of IAEA experts at each facility.

The IAEA says it already has a permanent presence of up to four experts at Zaporizhzhia, and a two-member team is also expected at the Khmelnitsky plant.

Grossi, who previously said he hoped to broker a deal before the end of 2022, said last week that talks with Kyiv and Moscow had become more complicated because they involved not just diplomats, but also military officers.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia facility.

(Writing by Elaine Monaghan and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Josie Kao and Michael Perry)