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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Safety concerns persist at Ukrainian nuclear plant

A Leopard 2 tank in Augustdorf, Germany, last month.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog held talks Monday with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine before a visit by the official this week to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to assess safety and security at the facility, which has been held by Russian forces for more than a year.

The talks were held in Zaporizhzhia, a city about 35 miles northeast of the nuclear facility, that is in Ukrainian hands but has been repeatedly shelled by Russian forces since they launched their full scale invasion more than a year ago.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said on Twitter that he and Zelenskyy had a “rich exchange” on the protection of the plant and its workers. He added that the agency would continue to support Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.

The two men also toured a hydroelectric station that Grossi called “an essential part of the system” that sustains the safety of the plant. Grossi wrote on Twitter that Zelenskyy showed him recent damage to the dam.

Zelenskyy thanked Grossi for his efforts and raised concerns about the pressure the plant’s Ukrainian workers face, according to a summary of the meeting released by his office. He also reiterated calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the plant.

“Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the ZNPP and adjacent territories, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure,” Zelenskyy said.

Grossi has issued a series of dire warnings about security at the plant, denouncing international complacency and saying that one day luck will run out when it comes to maintaining safety there, given that shelling has already damaged buildings at the plant and repeatedly cut external power, forcing the plant to rely on backup generators to run crucial cooling systems.

Reports that Ukraine could aim a long-anticipated offensive on the south of the country, which could cause an escalation of fighting in the area, have added to concerns about the plant’s security.

Grossi issued another warning over the weekend about the risks of allowing fighting anywhere near a nuclear plant, saying in a statement, “The nuclear safety and security dangers are all too obvious, as is the necessity to act now to prevent an accident with potential radiological consequences to the health and the environment for people in Ukraine and beyond.”

The facility, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, was seized by Russian troops more than a year ago and is now managed by Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom, although many of its operatives and engineers are Ukrainian. All six of its reactors have been shut down, although it requires power to maintain safety.

An IAEA proposal to turn the plant into a demilitarized zone has not borne fruit. Ukrainian officials have said Moscow has rejected the plan on the grounds that it would mean pulling its forces out of the facility, control of which has given them considerable leverage over Ukrainian energy production.

Grossi last visited the plant in September, when he brought the first group of international nuclear inspectors to the plant. Inspectors have been there ever since.

The plant, which lies on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, is close to the front lines in the conflict. Russian forces control the east bank in the region and have frequently shelled the city of Nikopol and other targets on the western side of the river. Ukraine controls the northern part of the Zaporizhzhia region while Russian forces hold the southern part.

In an indication of the front-line tensions, the Ukrainian military’s general staff said Monday that Russia had shelled 30 settlements in the Zaporizhzhia region over the previous 24 hours.

Zelenskyy’s visit to the front lines was his latest in a series of morale-boosting trips to visit positions close to the fighting recently. In a message posted on Telegram, Zelenskyy wrote that he was “honored to be here today, next to our military.”

Ukraine’s military leaders have said little about what is expected to be an offensive this spring, during which they will likely make use of tanks and other forms of military aid from the United States and other allies. In the latest example of that support, Britain’s Ministry of Defense on Monday said Ukrainian crews have returned home after completing training on how to operate Challenger 2 tanks. Britain has donated 14 of the tanks to Ukraine, although they are not yet with Ukrainian forces.

Military analysts cite two possible directions for the counteroffensive, one in the east of the country in the Donbas region and the other in the south. Ukrainian officials have said that a southern offensive would aim to advance on the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region. Some military analysts say that could also involve ferrying troops across the Dnieper River southwest of the power plant.

Local Ukrainian officials have reported sporadic explosions around Melitopol for months in apparent attacks on Russian forces. There were two more blasts Monday, the city’s exiled mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said on the Telegram messaging app.

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