International inspectors reached the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on Thursday and pledged to stay on site as continued fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces threatens to ignite a disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear facility.
A 14-member team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials entered the plant after intense, lengthy negotiations to cross the front lines of battle. As local officials reportedly distribute anti-radiation iodine tablets to the local population in the event of a nuclear catastrophe, IAEA director Rafael Grossi said his inspectors gathered valuable data during their first day on-site and will continue their assessments in the days to come.
“The IAEA mission “is now there at the plant and it’s not moving. It’s going to stay there. We’re going to have a continued presence there at the plant with some of my experts,” he said. “I will continue to be worried about the plant until we have a situation which is more stable.”
Such a presence, he said, will be “indispensable to stabilize the situation and to get regular, reliable, impartial, neutral updates of what the situation is there.”
But the fears of what could happen are just one more sign of the unpredictability of the war, the biggest conflict on the European continent since World War II and one whose end is seemingly nowhere in sight.
The long-awaited IAEA visit comes as fears mount over the future of the massive plant, which sits on the banks of the Dnieper River and has been controlled by Russian troops since the early days of the war.
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“It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times by chance. [But] deliberately — we don’t have the elements to assess that,” Mr. Grossi told reporters at Zaporizhzhia.
The potential for a major radiation leak has sparked fears of a Chernobyl-style disaster while also fueling a global conversation about the dangers of nuclear reactors in war zones and how, in a worst-case scenario, civilian power plants could essentially be turned into arguably the world’s deadliest weapons.
Both Kyiv and Moscow seem to recognize the gravity of the situation, even as both sides blame the other for continued shelling in the area around Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located.
Even as the IAEA contingent was on its way to the plant, Russian troops shelled their route, Ukrainian officials alleged. Kyiv has long claimed that Russia is essentially using the massive facility as a shield from which to launch attacks, banking on the fact that Ukrainian troops dare not return fire given the dangers involved.
Russian officials countered that Ukrainian troops carried out their own artillery strikes on the area and tried to recapture control of the plant shortly before IAEA inspectors arrived. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukrainian troops arrived by speedboat at the plant just before the IAEA team arrived but were foiled by Russian airstrikes.
None of those claims were independently verified by news organizations in the area, underscoring the growing confusion on the ground as each side hurls accusations.
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Separately, Ukrainian troops pressed ahead with a grueling counteroffensive in southern Ukraine on Thursday. Both sides have claimed victory in those battles, but Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the U.S. is aware that “Russian units are falling back” in some cases.
Ukraine acknowledges the counteroffensive will move slowly.
“It is a very slow process, because we value people,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as quoted by Reuters.
Russian officials deny that Ukrainian troops have made any significant advances.
At the Zaporizhzhia plant, Russian officials said they’ll work with the IAEA to prevent deadly incidents.
“We are taking all the necessary measures to ensure that the plant is secure, that it functions safely and that the mission accomplishes all of its plans there,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
Beyond the risks associated with the plant itself, there are growing fears that the Ukrainian workers manning the plant are overworked and sleep-deprived, raising the risk of deadly human errors.
“Despite a difficult situation and circumstances, they are very professional in their work,” Mr. Grossi, the IAEA chief, said of the staff.
The plant was briefly knocked offline earlier this week due to damage from the fighting and one of its reactors was reportedly shut down by the plant’s emergency protection systems. Further damage to the facility could lead to significant radiation leaks.
Pentagon officials this week urged both Russian and Ukrainian forces to allow the IAEA team to do its job.
“We certainly welcome, first and foremost, the IAEA’s presence in the region,” Air Force Brig Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Wednesday. “We would want to ensure the inspection team can get in there and do its work.”
Moving forward, analysts say the Pentagon must grapple with high-stakes questions about nuclear reactors and their potential role in combat. The intentional targeting of a reactor and subsequent radiation leaks could lead to mass casualties in Europe or elsewhere around the world. It’s unclear how such incidents might be viewed by military and political leaders, but specialists say it’s time to establish firm standards that answer such questions.
“Washington should pay attention. It should take several steps but two of the most important are dialing in ‘peaceful’ reactors as pre-positioned nuclear weapons into its strategic deterrence strategy and rethinking its enthusiasm for exporting reactors even into war zones,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “The first task requires clarifying when, and, if it ever … would make sense for U.S. forces to fire on reactors overseas. It also entails determining how our forces might best deter and protect against attacks on friends’ reactors meant to harm or coerce them.”
“The second task demands examining what can be done physically to protect existing reactors overseas where U.S. troops are or might be deployed,” he wrote this week in a piece for the National Interest. “It also requires assessing how prudent constructing new nuclear plants might be in or near likely war zones and where those zones might lie.”
— This article is based in part on wire service reports.