U.N. experts head to Russian-held nuclear power plant from Ukrainian capital
By Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora
A team of international nuclear experts departed from Ukraine’s capital Wednesday morning hoping to ensure the safety of an imperiled nuclear plant. A senior Ukrainian official warned that many challenges remained to the team’s mission.
One of the biggest obstacles will be finding safe passage through an active battlefield to the Russian-occupied facility. Fourteen experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, landed in Ukraine this week, where they are confronted by one of the most complicated missions in the agency’s history. The IAEA has also worked in Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
To reach the occupied facility, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the team must negotiate the craters and trenches of the front lines and enter an area where frequent shelling has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe. The team could reach the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces as early as Wednesday afternoon.
“As you know, we have a very, very important task there to perform, to assess the real situation there, to help stabilize the situation as much as we can,” the IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi, told reporters in Kyiv early Wednesday before departing in a convoy of armored SUVs.
Monitors intended to spend several days in the Russian-occupied nuclear facility, and will seek to establish a permanent monitoring mission at the plant, Grossi said. “After six months of steady efforts, the IAEA is moving in to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” he said.
Before the experts set out for the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, they tried to broker some kind of deal with the two militaries. Fighting is intensifying in the south, where Ukraine is escalating strikes in what could be part of broader counteroffensive.
By early Wednesday, Grossi said the mission had secured safety guarantees from both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, although dangers lingered. “We are going to a war zone, we are going to occupied territory,” he said.
Both Russia, whose forces seized the plant not long after invading, and Ukraine, whose military holds positions only a few miles away, say they support the IAEA mission. But they have disagreed on how it should be carried out. Russian officials have ignored pleas to withdraw from the facility to create a demilitarized zone around it.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Tuesday that key aspects of the negotiations were in question, among them the route to the facility. He said he was still hopeful, however, that the monitors would reach the plant “one way or another.”