UKRAINE: The Director General of the UN nuclear watchdog expressed concerns that the physical integrity of Europe’s biggest nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia, had been compromised, rather, “violated”, on account of weeks of shelling by both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general and head of the inspection team at Zaporizhzhia, Rafael Grossi, was speaking after spending several hours at the plant on Thursday, braving gunfire attacks he said had come “uncomfortably close”.
UN team inspects the nuclear powerplant
Grossi, along with the team of nuclear experts, were returning on Friday across the frontlines to inspect and evaluate the severity of damage to one of the most volatile areas in Europe.
The world held its breath as the team got to work, assessing the near-fatal ramifications of a potential radiation “catastrophe”.
The site was seized by red forces soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24. However, the nuclear operations at the plant were overseen and handled by Ukrainian personnel.
Ukraine’s state nuclear energy authority, Energoatom, verified that the team had been denied entry into the plant’s crisis centre, where Ukraine says Russian troops are stationed and would struggle to form an impartial assessment.
“The (Russian) occupiers lie, distort the facts and evidence that testify to their shelling of the power plant, as well as the consequences of damage to the infrastructure,” Energoatom said in a statement.
Recent reports of heavy shelling in the area and nearby towns have fuelled grave concerns about a possible Chernobyl-like disaster, that could impact millions of lives across Europe and even beyond.
In Moscow, Defence Minister Shoigu denied Ukrainian claims of Russian shelling of the plant and accused Kyiv of “nuclear terrorism”.
He said Kyiv was “creating a real threat of nuclear catastrophe” and using Western-supplied weapons to attack the plant. He also accused the United States and European Union of “encouraging such reckless actions”.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Kyiv trade are at complete loggerheads with each other, trading accusations for the numerous reports of shelling. Kyiv accuses Moscow of using the plant site as a military base for its operations while Moscow denies the allegations, refusing to retract its forces.
Grossi said on his return to Ukrainian-held territory on Thursday: “It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant have been violated, several times … this is something that cannot continue to happen.”
Grossi assured that the rest of his team would be at the site for further inspection and that he would continue to worry till the situation has been stabilized.
Grossi said he had been able to tour the entire site, scanning key areas such as the emergency systems and control rooms. His team would now need to do a lot of work to finish its analysis of technical aspects.
“We are not going anywhere. The IAEA is now there, it is at the plant and it is not moving – it’s going to stay there,” Grossi told reporters once he had crossed back into Ukrainian-held territory.
He reiterated that his expert team would be sure to present an impartial, neutral, detailed, and technically-sound assessment of the entire site.
Before entry into the plant, the IAEA had been withheld on their way due to heavy shelling on their route.
“There were moments where fire was obvious, heavy machine gun, artillery mortars, at two or three times (it was) really very concerning I would say for all of us,” Grossi said.
One of the nuclear reactors had to be shut down on Thursday due to the shelling.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly called for his troops to be withdrawn from the site, a decision that was backed by Ukraine’s allies and the United Nations.
Zelensky noted that the only objective now is active “demilitarization” of the plant site to prevent further alarms of a radiation leak.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday Moscow was doing everything to ensure that the plant could operate safely, and cause no interruptions in the IAEA’s inspection.
The plant rests on the south bank of a huge reservoir on the Dnipro River that divides Russian and Ukrainian forces in central southern Ukraine. Prior to the war, it supplied more than a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.
Ukraine launched a fresh counter-attack this week to recapture territory in southern Ukraine, especially down the Dnipro in the Kherson region.
Both sides have claimed battlefield successes. However, it is difficult to ascertain the truth about the facts since Ukraine officials release little data about the attacks.
On Friday, Ukraine’s southern command spokesperson, Natalia Humeniuk, said that Ukrainian troops had destroyed ammunition depots and pontoon bridges to hinder the movement of Russian reserves.
“Our successes are convincing and soon we will be able to disclose more information,” she said.
Moreover, Ukraine’s general staff on Friday confirmed that several towns and cities including Kharkiv had come under severe Russian shelling, in the north as well as Donetsk in the east.
Putin’s “special military operation” has fuelled a dire crisis in Ukraine over Russian attempts to rid its neighbour of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking minorities. With intense military attacks, heavy shellfire, and explosions, Ukraine has been reduced to rubble.
About a million Ukrainians have fled their homes, children have been orphaned in the thousands, parents left childless as soldiers continue to perish on the battlefronts, and property obliterated to ruins.