United Nations inspectors have arrived in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia ahead of their visit to the Russian-occupied nuclear plant, on “a mission to prevent a nuclear accident”.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team reached the city 34 miles away from the plant on Wednesday, where they were likely to spend the night before arriving at the facility.
Although Russian officials suggested the visit might last only one day, the IAEA hopes for longer.
“If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it’s going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days,” its chief, Rafael Grossi, told reporters in Zaporizhzhia.
“It’s a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident.”
Russia captured the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, in early March and its military force has been there ever since, as has most of the Ukrainian workforce who have toiled to continue running the facility, which had supplied 20 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity.
Fighting was reported near the power station and further afield on Wednesday, with Kyiv and Moscow both claiming battlefield successes amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive to recapture southern territory.
For weeks Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of endangering the Zaporizhzhia plant’s safety with artillery or drone strikes, risking a Chornobyl-style radiation disaster.
Kyiv says Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns and cities, knowing it will be hard for Ukraine to return fire. It has also accused Russian forces of shelling the plant.
The Russian defence ministry has said that radiation levels at the plant are normal.
Russia has denied Ukrainian assertions of reckless behaviour, questioning why it would shell a facility where its own troops are garrisoned as what it calls a security detail.
Moscow has accused the Ukrainians of shelling the plant to try to generate international outrage that Kyiv hopes will result in a demilitarised zone.
Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galuschenko said the IAEA inspection was a step toward “deoccupying and demilitarising” the site. Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.
Russia had said it welcomed the IAEA’s stated intention to set up a permanent mission at the plant.
But Yevgeny Balitsky, head of the Russian-installed administration in the area, told the Interfax news agency the IAEA inspectors “must see the work of the station in one day”.