VIENNA (AFP, REUTERS, NYTIMES) - International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi said on Monday (Aug 29) he was on his way to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has been the target of strikes in recent weeks.
"The day has come, IAEA's Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya is now on its way," Mr Grossi tweeted, saying the team from the UN atomic watchdog would arrive at Europe's largest nuclear power plant "later this week".
In a photograph accompanying his tweet, the IAEA chief posed with a team of 13 people wearing caps and sleeveless jackets bearing the nuclear watchdog's logo.
Mr Grossi has for months been asking to be able to visit the site, warning of the very real risk of a nuclear disaster.
“We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility,” he said on Monday.
A Russian-installed official in eastern Ukraine said on Monday that authorities would ensure the safety of the IAEA mission, the TASS news agency reported.
The Russian-backed authorities in the region said on Monday they have not been informed about details of the visit, TASS reported.
The Zaporizhzhia plant, which has six of Ukraine's reactors, has been occupied by Russian troops since shortly after Moscow launched its invasion on Feb 24, and has remained on the frontlines ever since.
With new shelling in and around the plant on a near-daily basis and an exhausted and stressed team of Ukrainian engineers tasked with keeping it running, the arrival of international inspectors was widely seen as an urgent step to verify the facility's safe operation.
"Nowhere in the history of this world has a nuclear power plant become a part of a combat zone, so this really has to stop immediately," Ms Bonnie Denise Jenkins, the State Department's undersecretary for arms control and international security, told reporters in Brussels last week.
The United Nations and Ukraine have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the nuclear power plant to ensure it is not a target.
The two sides have for days exchanged accusations of courting disaster with their attacks.
With fears mounting of a nuclear accident in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster, Zaporizhzhia authorities are handing out iodine tablets and teaching residents how to use them in case of a radiation leak.
Russian forces fired at Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located, the chief of staff of Ukraine’s president, Mr Volodymyr Zelensky, said late on Sunday on his Telegram channel alongside a video of fire fighters dousing burning cars.
Ukraine’s military earlier reported shelling of nine more towns on the opposite side of the Dnipro river.
Russia’s defence ministry reported more Ukrainian shelling at the plant over the weekend.
Nine shells fired by the Ukrainian artillery landed in the plant’s grounds, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
“At present, full-time technical personnel are monitoring the technical condition of the nuclear plant and ensuring its operation. The radiation situation in the area of the nuclear power plant remains normal,” he said in a statement.
The Russian state news agency cited authorities as saying they had downed a Ukrainian drone which planned to attack the nuclear-waste storage facility at the plant.
Two of the plant’s reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.
Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom said it had no new information about attacks on the plant and Reuters could not verify the accounts.
The US State Department said on Sunday that Russia did not want to acknowledge the grave radiological risk at plant and had blocked a draft agreement on nuclear non-proliferation because it mentioned such risk.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces also kept up their shelling in the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland in its east.
Mr Zelensky, in a video address late on Sunday, vowed “the occupiers will feel their consequences – in the further actions of our defenders”.
“No terrorist will be left without an answer for attacks on our cities. Zaporizhzhia, Orykhiv, Kharkiv, Donbas – they will receive an answer for all of them,” he added.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 in what it called a “special military operation” saying it had to demilitarise its southern neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.
The invasion of Ukraine has touched off Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War Two.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced and cities blasted to ruins. The war has also threatened the global economy with an energy and food supply crisis.
Russian shelling has displaced more civilians in the east, where three quarters of the population has fled the front-line region of Donetsk, the regional governor has said.
In Donetsk, Russian forces shelled military and civilian infrastructure near Bakhmut, Shumy, Yakovlivka, Zaytsevo, and Kodema, Ukraine’s military said early on Monday.
Russian strikes killed eight civilians in the Donetsk region on Sunday, the region’s governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
The US and its allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia for its invasion and sent billions of dollars in security assistance to the Ukrainian government.
Russia has said sanctions will never make it change its position and Western arms supplies only drag out the conflict.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will travel to Sweden and Czech Republic this week and push for more sanctions on Russia, including an EU-wide visa ban for Russians.
European Union foreign ministers meeting this week are unlikely to unanimously back a visa ban on all Russians, EU foreign policy chief told Austria’s ORF TV.