UN team to inspect Ukrainian nuclear plant as shells land nearby

Local residents inspect cars destroyed by recent shelling in Enerhodar on Aug 30, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine - UN nuclear experts are on their way to visit the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine's south on Thursday to assess any damage, as both sides in the conflict reported new shelling in the nearby town of Enerhodar.

Conditions at the plant, Europe's largest, have been unravelling for weeks, with Moscow and Kyiv trading blame for nearby shelling and fuelling fears of a radiation disaster.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia, 55km from the plant, on Wednesday and Ukraine's defence ministry said it was scheduled to visit the facility on Thursday.

"It's a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident," IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters in Zaporizhzhia.

Russian-installed officials have suggested that the team from the UN nuclear watchdog would have only a day to inspect the plant, while the mission is preparing for longer.

"If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it's going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days," Grossi said.

The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces reported early on Thursday fighting near the plant and further afield along front lines in the east and south.

Both sides have claimed battlefield successes amid a fresh Ukrainian push to recapture territory in the south.

"It is a very slow process, because we value people," said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, referring to the Ukrainian offensive.

"There will be no quick success."

Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine close to the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the over six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Elsewhere, Ukraine repelled Russian attacks in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, towns north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, its armed forces' general staff said.

Pro-Russian troops have focused on Bakhmut in their push to extend control over the Donbas region, Ukraine's industrial heartland in its east, the general staff added on Wednesday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia on Aug 31, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Russia has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.

Reuters could not independently verify battlefield details.

Russia sent its troops over the border on Feb 24 for what it calls a "special military operation" to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities.

Ukraine and the West describe Russia's actions as an unprovoked war of aggression that has caused millions to flee, killed thousands and turned cities into rubble.

Enerhodar shelling

The conflict has also spurred worries of a Chernobyl-style radiation disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which was captured by Russia in March but is still manned by Ukrainian staff.

Russian state news agency TASS reported that residential areas in Enerhodar town, near the plant, had come under "massive" shelling from Ukrainian troops, citing Russian-appointed authorities.

The Ukrainian command of the defences of Zaporizhzhia also reported explosions in Enerhodar. It said Russian troops were responsible but did not give details.

"Since five o'clock in the morning, constant mortar shelling of the town has not stopped. Bursts from automatic weapons could be heard. Several civilian objects have been hit," the mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, wrote on Telegram.

"There are casualties," Orlov said.

Zaporizhzhia city authorities had earlier been conducting emergency drills amid mounting worries about a radiation leak.

A video released by the regional state administration on Wednesday shows workers in protective suits and breathing masks using radiation detecting devices on cars and people.

The IAEA mission to the plant is a step toward "deoccupying and demilitarising" the location, Ukraine's energy minister, German Galushchenko, said on Wednesday, though adding that his government would not be able to follow up on any recommendations"as long as the Russian military is there".

Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.

Ukraine says Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns, knowing it will be hard for Ukraine to return fire.

It has also accused Russian forces of shelling the plant.

Smoke rises near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Aug 29, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Russia denies the accusations and says radiation levels at the plant are normal. It also accuses Ukrainians of targeting the plant to try to generate outrage in hopes it will result in a demilitarised zone.

Grossi said such a status was a political matter for the countries in conflict.

Russia had said it welcomed the IAEA's stated intention to set up a permanent mission at the plant, but the head of the Russian-installed administration in the area told Interfax the inspectors "must see the work of the station in one day".

Away from Ukraine, Russia halted gas supplies via Europe's key supply route on Wednesday, citing need for repairs.

Separately, European Union foreign ministers decided to make it more expensive and lengthier for Russians to obtain visas to travel to the bloc but stopped short of a ban. REUTERS

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