A mission from the UN’s atomic safety watchdog arrived at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on Thursday after fighting along the front lines delayed the delegation for several hours.
The International Atomic Energy Agency wrote on Twitter that the “support and assistance mission” led by director-general Rafael Grossi “has just arrived at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to conduct indispensable nuclear safety and security and safeguards activities”.
The team’s arrival at the plant in the Russian-occupied southern town of Energodar followed several tense hours in which the inspectors were held up in a front-line area as gunfire echoed from nearby battles.
The mission at the sprawling site is expected to last several days and the IAEA has said it hopes to establish a permanent team at the plant.
Russian forces occupied the site, Europe’s largest nuclear power facility, soon after Moscow’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February, marking the first time nuclear reactors have been at the centre of a major war.
The plant is operated by workers from Ukraine’s Energoatom, the country’s state nuclear power enterprise, but they are now under the control of Russian forces.
Both Ukraine and Russia have repeatedly accused each other’s forces of conducting military strikes around the plant, triggering fears of a catastrophic nuclear accident. Ukraine, which has four operating nuclear power stations, is home to the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident while under Soviet control in 1986.
Earlier, a spokesperson for Grossi told the Financial Times that the IAEA mission had “been delayed on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the front line for some three hours”.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said that “Russia shelled Energodar and the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant” as the mission was trying to approach.
“They want to disrupt the visit of the IAEA mission. These are the actions of a terrorist state afraid of the world learning the truth,” Yermak added.
Energoatom said on Thursday that Russian shelling had led it to shut down one of the only two operating reactors at the plant for the second time in 10 days. The plant has six reactors.
IAEA inspectors had set off from the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Thursday morning on their way to Energodar. The mission arrived in Ukraine earlier this week after months of negotiations in which the IAEA sought to secure permission and security guarantees from both warring parties.
Ukraine and its western backers have repeatedly called on Russia to demilitarise the plant and return control to Kyiv. They have accused Russia of basing troops and equipment at the plant and using it as a shield while conducting artillery strikes.
The Moscow-based Interfax news agency, citing Russia’s defence ministry, reported on Thursday that a Ukrainian “sabotage group” travelling in boats across the Dnipro river had been destroyed by a helicopter attack after disembarking near the facility.
Russia’s Tass news agency, citing Alexander Volga, installed by Russian occupation forces as the head of Energodar, said the city was without power on Thursday.
Russian and Ukrainian military claims could not be independently verified.