U.N. mission crosses front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces
By Andrew E. Kramer and Victoria Kim
A team of United Nations inspectors reached the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Thursday after crossing the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, braving intensified shelling that highlighted the risks of a nuclear accident.
“The IAEA mission arrived” at the plant, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, Energoatom, said on the Telegram messaging app. A convoy of nine vehicles entered the complex around 2:15 p.m. local time, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
As the U.N. experts set off on Thursday morning in a convoy of armored SUVs toward the dangerous buffer zone separating the two armies in southern Ukraine, Russian mortar shells struck the plant, Energoatom said, causing equipment failures that forced the shutdown of one reactor and the activation of backup generators at another.
The extent of damage from the strikes was not immediately clear, and there were no reports of heightened radiation levels around the facility. But weeks of repeated strikes in and around the plant, which is controlled by Russian forces but operated by Ukrainian engineers, have raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
The urgency of the threat prompted the U.N. team, which includes 14 experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to make the last-minute decision to proceed to the plant even as the thud of artillery strikes was heard in the parking lot of their hotel 30 miles away.
The shelling underscored the risks of their mission. Although neither Russia nor Ukraine had agreed to a cease-fire in the area, both had said they would guarantee the safety of the mission. As the shelling continued despite those promises, both armies accused the other of attacking the route toward the plant and placing the U.N. inspectors in peril.
“We are aware of the current situation; there has been increased military activity,” Rafael M. Grossi, the IAEA secretary-general, who is leading the mission, told reporters before the inspectors set off early Thursday.
Grossi said the Ukrainian military had briefed him on the combat overnight near his planned route. “But weighing the pros and cons, and having come so far, we are not stopping,” he said. “We consider that we have the minimum conditions to move, accepting the risks are very, very high.”
“We have a very important mission to accomplish,” Grossi said.
It took weeks of delicate negotiations for both sides to agree to the IAEA visit, but it remained unclear how much time the experts would have to verify the plant’s safe operation. The journey required the team to cross several checkpoints separating the Ukrainian and Russian sides of the battlefield.
Foreign journalists were not being permitted to accompany the inspectors, who are among the few international personnel who have tried to cross the front line since the war began in February.
The gravest risks, Grossi said before the journey began, would come as the column of SUVs crossed the so-called gray zone, or buffer area between the two armies, where neither side’s military holds sway. It is an area of fields cratered from artillery shelling, where the dangers “are significant,” he said.
In the hours before the mission departed, Ukrainian officials reported barrages by rocket artillery and howitzers, and the flight of attack helicopters, in the town of Enerhodar, which lies along the route the nuclear monitors will travel.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian head of the Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, said that the IAEA team was being held up by Russian shelling along the agreed route of travel. At the same time, Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian army’s occupation administration in the region surrounding the plant, accused Ukraine of carrying out “massive shelling” in Enerhodar and attempting to disrupt the U.N. mission.