U.N. team to inspect Ukrainian nuclear plant in bid to avert disaster

 U.N. team to inspect Ukrainian nuclear plant in bid to avert disaster


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ZAPORIZHZHIA — UN nuclear experts are due to visit the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine’s south on Thursday to assess any damage from shelling that has prompted bitter recriminations and global fears of a radiation disaster.

Conditions at the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, have been unraveling for weeks, with Moscow and Kyiv trading blame for shelling in the vicinity. A recent satellite image from private US company Maxar Technologies showed several blackened holes in the roof of a building adjacent to reactors at the plant.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia, 55 km (34 miles) from the plant, on Wednesday and Ukraine’s defense ministry said it was scheduled to visit the facility on Thursday.

“It’s a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters in Zaporizhzhia.

Russian-installed officials have suggested that the team from the UN nuclear watchdog would have only a day to inspect the plant, while the mission is preparing 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,” Grossi said.

Fighting was reported near the plant and further afield on Wednesday, with both sides claiming battlefield successes amid a new Ukrainian push to recapture territory in the south.

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“It is a very slow process, because we value people,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, referring to the Ukrainian offensive.

“There will be no quick success.”

Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine close to the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the over six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Elsewhere, Ukraine repelled Russian attacks in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, towns north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, its armed forces’ general staff said.

Pro-Russian troops have focused on Bakhmut in their push to extend control over the Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland in its east, the general staff added on Wednesday.

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Russia has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.

Reuters could not independently verify battlefield details.

Russia sent its troops over the border on Feb. 24 for what it calls a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities.

Ukraine and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression that has caused millions to flee, killed thousands and turned cities into rubble.

RADIATION RISK

The conflict has also fueled worries of a Chornobyl-style radiation disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which was captured by Russia in March but is still manned by Ukrainian staff.

Zaporizhzhia city authorities have been conducting emergency drills to prepare for a radiation leak.

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A video released by the regional state administration on Wednesday shows workers in protective suits and breathing masks using radiation detecting devices on cars and people.

The IAEA mission to the plant is a step towards “deoccupying and demilitarizing” the site, Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushchenko, said on Wednesday, although pointing out that his government would not be able to follow up on any recommendations.

“If they draw up a report about violations and give it to Ukraine to fix them, we won’t be able to do that as long as the Russian military is there,” Galushchenko added.

But Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.

Ukraine 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.

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Russia denies the accusations and says radiation levels at the plant are normal. It also accuses Ukrainians of targeting the plant to try to generate outrage in hopes it will result in a demilitarized zone.

Grossi said such a status was a political matter for the countries in conflict.

Russia had said it welcomed the IAEA’s stated intention to set up a permanent mission at the plant, but the head of the Russian-installed administration in the area told Interfax the inspectors “must see the work of the station in one day.”

Away from Ukraine, Russia halted gas supplies via Europe’s key supply route on Wednesday, citing the need for repairs.

Separately, European Union foreign ministers decided to make it more expensive and longer for Russians to obtain visas to travel to the bloc but stopped short of a ban.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, and by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Himani Sarkar; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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