Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of waging attacks near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant just as a team of UN inspectors was heading to visit it despite the fighting.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, led by its director Rafael Grossi, set off for the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia plant despite the heavy shelling that led to an emergency system shutting down one of its reactors.
“There has been increased military activity, including this morning until very recently,” Mr Grossi said, adding that after being briefed by the Ukrainian military he decided to get moving despite the inherent risks.
He noted that the risks are “very, very high” in the so-called grey zone between Ukrainian and Russian positions, but “we consider that we have the minimum conditions to move”.
Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the six-month war.
Ukraine alleges Russia is using the plant as a shield, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Kyiv of recklessly firing on the area, raising the threat of a nuclear disaster that may affect the entire continent.
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.
“We have a very important mission to accomplish,” Mr Grossi said. “We are going to start immediately an assessment of the security and the safety situation at the plant.
“I am going to consider the possibility of establishing a continued presence of the IAEA at the plant, which we believe is indispensable to stabilise the situation and to get regular, reliable, impartial, neutral updates of what the situation is there.”
The Russian Defence Ministry said 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 plant.
It said the Ukrainian troops arrived in boats, landing three kilometres north east of the plant on the left bank of the Dnieper River and tried to seize it. The ministry said Russian forces “took steps to destroy the enemy”, engaging warplanes.
The Russia-installed administration of the city of Enerhodar, just outside the plant, said at least three local residents were killed and one injured early on Thursday by 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 governor Oleksandr Starukh.
Ukraine’s Enerhoatom company which oversees the country’s nuclear power plants said mortar shelling by Russian forces led to the shutdown of one reactor by its emergency protection system
It added that the shelling also damaged a back-up power supply line used for in-house needs, and one of the plant’s reactors that was not operating was switched to diesel generators.