U.N. inspectors set out for embattled nuclear plant
By Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora
Experts from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog were traveling through an active battlefield Wednesday in an effort to reach the imperiled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, as a Russian official said Moscow would support plans for the inspectors to set up a permanent presence at the facility.
The group, which includes 14 experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency, left Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, early Wednesday and traveled south, in one of the most complicated missions in the nuclear watchdog’s history. They must negotiate the craters and trenches of the war’s front lines, where fighting has intensified in recent weeks and frequent shelling around the plant has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
“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 M. Grossi, told reporters in Kyiv before departing in a convoy of armored SUVs.
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,” he said. “We are going to occupied territory.”
Hours after the nuclear experts set off, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the IAEA, wrote in a tweet that Grossi had signaled plans to set up a permanent presence for international inspectors at the plant, and that “Russia welcomes this intention.”
Earlier in the day, the Russian-appointed head of the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevhen Balytskyi, said the visit was expected to last only one day, calling the delegation’s stated goal for the visit vague.
“They have one day to inspect the operation of the plant,” he said, adding, “If they say some elements need to be attended to, we’ll be able to do so.”
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. Fighting is intensifying in the south, where Ukraine is escalating strikes in what could be part of broader counteroffensive.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said in an interview Tuesday that key aspects of the negotiations were still 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.”
As the IAEA mission traveled toward the plant, Ukrainian officials continued to distribute iodine pills to protect people living near the facility from radiation-induced thyroid cancer.
At a hospital in the Khortytsia district, Dr. Sveta Kovalenko, 51, handed out pills to a steady stream of families. One woman, Olga Stepanenko, 64, was getting some for her grandchildren.
“You need to hope that there will not be a nuclear disaster but always be prepared for the worst,” Stepanenko said.