United Nations inspectors will visit the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, as they seek to protect the site from artillery shelling that has sparked global fear of disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the southern city of Zaporizhzhya, 55 km (34 miles) from the plant on Wednesday, and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said inspectors would visit the facility on Thursday.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other for weeks of endangering the security of the Zaporizhzhya factory with shelling or drone strikes, threatening a Chernobyl-style radiation disaster.
Kiev says Russia has used the factory as a shield for its troops to hit towns and cities, knowing it will be difficult for Ukraine to fire back. It has also accused Russian troops of shelling the factory.
Russia has denied Ukraine’s claims of reckless behavior and questions why it would shell a facility where its own troops are stationed as what it calls a security detail.
Arriving in the city of Zaporizhzhya on Wednesday afternoon, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said the “real work” will begin on Thursday. He underlined the challenges ahead.
“It is a mission that aims to prevent a nuclear accident and to preserve this important – the largest, the largest – nuclear power plant in Europe,” he said.
He said an initial tour will take a few days, after which “we’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on”.
The complex has been occupied by Russian troops but has been run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the six-month-old war, and world leaders have demanded that the IAEA be allowed to inspect it.
The Russian Defense Ministry has said radiation levels at the plant are normal.
Grossi said he had received “explicit assurances” from Russia that the 14 experts would be able to do their job.
Grossi also said he hopes the IAEA will be able to establish an “ongoing presence” at the plant to protect it from an accident.
The team’s work at the site, he added, includes a physical inspection of the site, operation of the safety system and interviews with nuclear plant personnel.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to the international organization in Vienna, welcomed the idea that the UN agency’s experts could stay on site permanently.
While Ukraine sees the IAEA inspection as a step toward “relocation and demilitarization” of the site, Russia has said it has no plans to withdraw its troops for the time being, creating the potential for further rancor.
“If they (the IAEA) prepare a report on violations and give it to Ukraine to solve them, we won’t be able to do that as long as the Russian military is there,” said Ukraine’s Energy Minister, Germany’s Galushchenko.
The world watched with concern at the progress of the mission. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, reiterated a call on Russia to completely demilitarize the area around the factory.
“They are playing games. They’re gambling with nuclear security,” Borrell said. “We can’t play war games near a site like this.”
While the inspectors were en route, Russian-backed local authorities repeatedly accused Ukrainian troops of shelling the factory site and the city where it is located, Enerhodar. They said drone strikes hit the factory’s administrative building and training center.
Yevhen Yevtushenko, chief of administration in the Ukrainian city of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the factory, accused the attacks were carried out by the Russians in an attempt to make Ukraine appear as the culprit.
Fighting for Kherson
Meanwhile, fighting on the ground continues, with Ukrainian officials saying they have had “success” in three areas of the Russian-occupied Kherson region, two days after Kiev announced the start of a southern counter-offensive to retake territory.
Yuriy Sobolevskyi, the deputy head of Kherson’s regional council, told Ukraine’s national news channel that Ukrainian troops had had success in Kherson, Berislav and Kakhovka districts, but declined to give details.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said it is worth noting that the front line has been very stable in recent weeks.
“None of these [Russian and Ukrainian] armed forces have been able to deliver great feats, so we will have to see if Ukraine has enough weapons and manpower to liberate many of those cities occupied by Russia,” she said.
The Russian Defense Ministry disputed Ukraine’s claim to successes in the south, stressing that Ukrainian troops have suffered rather heavy losses in equipment and men.
In its daily briefing, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had shot down three Ukrainian helicopters and that Ukraine had lost four fighter jets during two days of fighting around the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih frontline and in other areas of southern Ukraine.
Reuters and Al Jazeera news agency were unable to verify the battlefield reports.