KYIV - The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called on Tuesday for a security and safety zone around Europe’s biggest nuclear power station, describing extensive damage inspectors had found at the plant on the front line in the Ukraine war.
A long-awaited report did not ascribe blame for damage at the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of shelling. The plant is controlled by Russian forces but operated by Ukrainian technicians.
Inspectors said they had found Russian troops and equipment at the plant, including military vehicles parked in turbine halls. They also said conditions for Ukrainian staff operating the plant should be improved to reduce the likelihood of errors.
“Ukrainian staff operating the plant under Russian military occupation are under constant high stress and pressure, especially with the limited staff available,” the IAEA report said.
“This is not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety.”
IAEA inspectors led by the agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, braved shelling to cross the front line and reach the plant on Friday. Two experts have stayed on to maintain a long-term presence at the site.
Both Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of risking a nuclear disaster by shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant, which invading Russian forces seized early in the conflict but which is still operated by Ukrainian technicians.
It is located at the front line on a Russian-held bank of a reservoir and across the water from Ukrainian-held positions.
Mr Dmytro Orlov, the Ukrainian mayor of the surrounding city of Enerhodar who operates from outside Russian-held territory, said on social media that a powerful explosion had rung out shortly after noon. Residents were left without power or water.
Moscow repeated its longstanding accusations that Ukrainian forces had been shelling the plant.
Kyiv says it is Russia that has been staging such incidents, to undermine international support for Ukraine and as a possible pretext to cut the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and steal its output.
Russia has so far spurned international pleas to pull its forces back from the site and demilitarise the area.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday warned of a near "radiation catastrophe" at the plant and said Russia's shelling of it showed Moscow "does not care what the IAEA will say".
He was speaking after IAEA officials, citing information supplied by Ukraine, said the sole remaining reactor had gone offline after the plant's backup power line had been cut to extinguish a fire.
They said the line itself had not been damaged and would be reconnected and that the plant had enough electricity to operate safely. The reactor would be reconnected to the grid once backup power was restored.
Russia's diplomatic mission to international organisations in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said on Telegram that three Ukrainian shells had landed near the plant's fuel storage unit, solid radioactive waste storage and near one of the power units.
It published images of shell impacts to back its assertion.
Reuters could not verify either side's claims.
Thousands of people have died and millions have fled Ukraine since Russia launched what it calls a special military operation in February saying it aimed to demilitarise its neighbour. Kyiv and the West call it a brazen war of conquest.
The past week has seen the focus of fighting shift to the south, where Ukraine has started a long-awaited counter-attack to recapture territory seized early in the war.
Little information has emerged about the progress of that campaign, with Kyiv barring journalists from the front line and releasing only limited reports, to preserve surprise.
Russia says it has repelled the assault. Western military experts say Ukraine's aim appears to be to trap thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of the wide Dnipro River and cut them off by destroying their rear supply lines.
Meanwhile, Russia continued to bombard Ukrainian cities elsewhere. Rescue workers found the body of a woman beneath the rubble of an apartment building in Kharkiv after overnight shelling of Ukraine's second-biggest city, mayor Ihor Terekhov said. The governor said two others were also killed in the province.
Ukrainian officials said Russia had also struck an oil depot in Kryvy Rih, President's Zelensky's hometown.
"There's a big fire at the oil depot. Fire services are working at the site. We're working to establish the scale of destruction and information about casualties," Mr Valentyn Reznychenko, a local regional official, said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was meanwhile shown with his defence minister as he inspected a big military exercise in Russia's Far East.
The New York Times reported that US intelligence had assessed that Russia was buying artillery ammunition from North Korea as sanctions begin to reduce its ability to sustain its operations in Ukraine. There was no immediate reaction to that from Moscow.
Fears in Europe have increased over a potentially bleak winter after Russia announced it was keeping its main gas pipeline to Germany shut.
Moscow blames disruption to equipment maintenance caused by Western sanctions for its halt to the flow of gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipe. European countries call that nonsense.
Pipeline operator Gazprom's deputy chief executive officer, Mr Vitaly Markelov, told Reuters on Tuesday that Nord Stream 1 would not resume shipments until Siemens Energy repaired faulty equipment.
Siemens said it did not understand Gazprom's representation of the situation.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova blamed the United States for the energy crisis.
She said it had pushed European leaders towards what she called the "suicidal" step of cutting economic and energy cooperation with Moscow. REUTERS