KYIV (AP) – A UN nuclear watchdog team set out on Monday on an urgent mission to protect the Russian-occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya at the heart of the fighting in Ukraine, a much-anticipated journey that the world hopes will help prevent a radioactive catastrophe.
The stakes couldn’t be greater for the group of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency who will visit the plant in a country where the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 sent radiation throughout the region, shocking the world and reinforcing the global pushback from nuclear energy.
“Without exaggeration, this mission will be the toughest in the history of the IAEA,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
Ukraine and Russia underlined the urgency and again accused each other of shelling the wider region around the nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, which was briefly knocked offline last week. The dangers are so great that officials have started handing out radiation iodine tablets to local residents.
To avert disaster, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has spent months seeking access to the Zaporizhzhya factory, which has been occupied by Russian troops and Ukrainian workers since the early days of the six-month-old war..
“The day has come,” Grossi tweeted Monday, adding that the “Support and Assistance Mission … of the Vienna-based IAEA … is now underway.” A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the team, which heads Grossi, will arrive in Kiev on Monday. In April, Grossi headed an IAEA mission to Chernobyl, which had been occupied by Russian forces earlier in the war.
The IAEA said in a statement that its team will “take urgent safety actions,” assess damage, determine the functionality of the plant’s safety and security systems and evaluate the working conditions of control room personnel.
Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency, Energoatom, warned Monday against Russian attempts to cover up their military use of the plant.
“The occupiers, preparing for the arrival of the IAEA mission, increased pressure on the personnel… to prevent them from revealing evidence of the occupiers’ crimes at the factory and its use as a military base. Energoatom said, adding that four factory workers were injured in Russian shelling of the city where they live.
Ukraine accused Russia of new missile and artillery strikes at or near the factory, raising fears that the fighting could cause a massive radiation leak. So far, radiation levels in the facility, which has six reactors, have been reported to be normal.
Ukraine has alleged that Russia is essentially holding the factory hostage, storing weapons there and carrying out attacks from the vicinity, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of reckless firing at the facility.
World leaders have called on the Russians to demilitarize the factory. Satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies on Monday showed armored personnel carriers on a road near the reactors, damage to the roof of a building, also near the reactors, and wildfires burning nearby.
Ukraine reported shelling in Nikopol, the city across the Dnieper River from the nuclear power plant, and said one person was killed and five others injured. In Enerhodar, just a few kilometers from the plant, the city’s Ukrainian mayor, Dmytro Orlov, accused Russian shelling of injuries to at least 10 residents.
Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said in Stockholm that he expects the IAEA mission to produce “a clear statement of the facts, of violation of all nuclear, of nuclear safety protocols”. He added: “We know that Russia is threatening not only Ukraine, but also the whole world with the risk of a nuclear accident.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia will ensure the security of the IAEA mission and called on other countries to “increase pressure on the Ukrainian side to force it to stop threatening the European continent by entering the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and surrounding areas. areas.”
Over the weekend, Energoatom painted an ominous picture of the threats at the plant by releasing a map that predicted where radiation could spread.
Elsewhere on the battlefield, the Ukrainian army claimed it had breached Russia’s first line of defense at Kherson, just north of the Crimean peninsula, an advance that would represent a strategic breakthrough – if confirmed. Kherson is the largest Ukrainian city occupied by the Russians, and reports of Ukrainian troops preparing for a counter-offensive there and elsewhere in the region have been circulating for weeks.
Russian-installed officials, citing Ukrainian missile strikes, announced Monday the evacuation of residents of nearby Nova Kakhovka, a city often targeted by Kiev’s armed forces, from their workplaces to air raid shelters. And in another town in the Kherson region, Berislav, Russian news agencies reported that Ukrainian shelling had damaged a church, a school and other buildings.
But in a war filled with claims and counter-claims that are difficult to independently verify, Moscow-appointed regional leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed Ukraine’s claim of an offensive in the Kherson region as false, noting that Ukraine’s troops have suffered heavy losses in the area. And Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak warned of “super-sensational announcements” about a counter-offensive.
The highest number of casualties – eight civilians and seven injured – was reported in the eastern region of Donetsk. Russian forces attacked the towns of Sloviansk and Kostyantynivka last night and the Ukrainian governor of the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, urged residents to evacuate immediately.
Cluster munitions were fired into Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Monday morning, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov reported.
Ukraine’s presidential office also reported heavy fighting and multiple Ukrainian attacks in the southern Kherson region, most of which are occupied by the Russians. Ukrainian troops carry out attacks on ammunition depots and Russian military positions in the area.
Andrew Katell contributed to this report from New York.
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