UN agency calls for safety zone around Ukraine nuclear plant caught in crossfire

International Atomic Energy Agency urges Russians and Ukrainians to agree on an end to shelling around Zaporizhzhia site to prevent further damage

A Ukrainian soldier fires on the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, September 3, 2022. (Kostiantyn Liberov/AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires on the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, September 3, 2022. (Kostiantyn Liberov/AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The UN atomic watchdog agency urged Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday to establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid mounting fears the fighting could trigger a catastrophe in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

In a report following a visit by experts from the agency last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said “shelling on site and in its vicinity should be stopped immediately to avoid any further damages to the plant and associated facilities, for the safety of the operating staff and to maintain the physical integrity to support safe and secure operation.”

“This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the ZNPP,” it said.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi, who led the inspection team last week, was due to brief the UN Security Council later Tuesday on his findings.

Shelling continued around Europe’s largest nuclear plant on Tuesday, a day after it was again knocked off Ukraine’s electrical grid and put in the precarious position of relying on its own power to run its safety systems.

Russian-installed officials accused Ukrainian forces of shelling Enerhodar, the city where the plant is situated, while the Ukrainians said Kremlin forces attacked the city of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the power station.

The Ukrainian mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, reported a powerful blast in the city around midday. The explosion left the city of 53,000 cut off from its power and water supplies. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the blast.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Rafael Grossi, the mission leader, left, and other members of the IAEA, inspect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, southeastern Ukraine, September 1, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

World leaders have called for the demilitarization of the plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war but is being run by Ukrainian engineers.

Two inspectors from the IAEA mission remained at the plant, a decision welcomed by Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

“There are Russian troops now who don’t understand what’s happening, don’t assess the risks correctly,” Podolyak said. “There is a number of our workers there, who need some kind of protection, people from the international community standing by their side and telling [Russian troops]: ‘Don’t touch these people, let them work.'”

On Monday, the IAEA said Ukrainian authorities reported that the plant’s last transmission line linking it to the nation’s power grid was disconnected to allow workers to put out a fire caused by shelling.

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told Ukrainian television: “Any repairs are impossible at this point — there are ongoing hostilities around the plant.”

In the meantime, the plant’s only remaining operational reactor will “generate the power the plant needs for its safety and other functions,” the IAEA said. The plant normally relies on outside power to run the critical cooling systems for its reactors and spent fuel and avoid a meltdown.

Mycle Schneider, an independent analyst in Canada on nuclear energy, said that means the plant was probably functioning in “island mode,” or producing electricity just for its own operations.

“Island mode is a very shaky, unstable and unreliable way to provide continuous power supply to a nuclear plant,” Schneider said.

A Russian military convoy is seen on the road toward the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, in Enerhodar, Zaporizhzhia region, in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. (AP Photo)

Experts say the reactors at Zaporizhzhia are designed to withstand natural disasters and even plane crashes, but the unpredictable fighting has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the cooling systems. In 1986, Ukraine was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the explosion at Chernobyl.

Ukrainian intelligence reported that residents of Enerhodar were fleeing the city out of fear. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia should organize safe corridors for women and children living nearby.

“People en masse are reaching out to us for help. They are trying to leave to the dangerous territory, but there are no corridors,” Vereshchuk told Ukrainian TV.

A man cycles past part of a rocket that sits wedged in the ground at a residential area in Sloviansk, Ukraine, September 5, 2022. (Leo Correa/AP)

Meanwhile, gunfire and explosions were heard in the afternoon in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine, with Russia’s state-run media reporting that the car of the Kremlin-installed “city commandant” had been blown up. The RIA Novosti news agency said that the official, Artem Bardin, was in serious condition and that a shootout followed the assassination attempt.

The news agency quoted Russian-backed local officials as saying they had launched a manhunt for the “Ukrainian saboteurs” responsible.

In the southern Kherson region, occupied by the Russians since early on in the war, Ukrainian forces continued their counter-offensive. A pontoon bridge was blown up overnight and a command center was hit, as well as two checkpoints, Ukrainian authorities said.

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