The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it plans to establish a permanent presence at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where constant shelling has sparked fears of a nuclear accident.
The announcement from Rafael Grossi, the IAEA chief, came shortly after he and a team of 13 other experts arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia Wednesday. They are expected to visit the nuclear facility, which is about a two hour drive away, on Thursday.
Grossi and his team embarked on the journey, a hours-long drive from Kyiv through a war zone, early Wednesday morning after striking a hard-fought bargain with Ukrainian and Russian officials to inspect the plant.
The team’s current remit – a technical visit meant to “prevent a nuclear accident” – is expected to last “a few days,” Grossi told reporters upon his arrival. However, if the team can lay the groundwork for a continued presence, their mission will be “prolonged.”
“We will have a pretty good idea of what’s going on,” Grossi said.
It’s unclear what sort of access the IAEA inspectors will be granted on their arrival or exactly how long their visit will last. A Russian-appointed local official told the news agency Interfax that the visit would last just one day, which may not be enough time to fully inspect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Grossi did not clarify under what conditions the IAEA would leave its personnel at the facility, which has been occupied by Russian forces since March, shortly after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine. Though the war has raged for more than six months, skirmishes near the facility intensified this summer.
Grossi said he believed the team could conduct its work safely, even if it’s not risk free.
“It’s something we need to do,” Grossi said. “We are a team of very experienced people. I’m bringing here the best and the brightest.”
A prolonged IAEA presence at the nuclear plant would likely help stave off the possibility of a dangerous nuclear accident. Russia would welcome a permanent IAEA presence at the facility, its diplomat to the agency and other international organizations in Vienna said Wednesday. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously said that he wants the IAEA to help strike a deal that would demilitarize Zaporizhzhia, rather than simply inspect the plant.
“This is one of the most (high) priority issues regarding the security of Ukraine and the world,” Zelensky said on Tuesday.
Zelensky’s government alleges that the Kremlin is using the nuclear plant as a fortress to protect its soldiers and launch attacks, some of which have struck the plant, because they know that Ukrainian forces have been ordered not to fire back at the sprawling complex.
Ukrainian leaders have also accused Russia of mismanaging the nuclear plant, putting its staff and nearby residents in danger.
The plant was disconnected from the energy grid for the first time in its history last week for about 24 hours due to fires at a nearby thermal power facility. At the time, Zelensky said if the reactors shut down, the plant would be “one step away from disaster.”
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Russia alleges that Ukrainian forces are firing at the plant and says Kyiv is complicating its efforts to safely operate the facility.
Each side denies the others’ allegations. CNN is unable to verify who is responsible for the shelling.
Though Zelensky and other Western leaders have expressed strong concerns about fighting so close to a nuclear facility, experts say a massive nuclear disaster like the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, which killed an untold number of people, is unlikely.
In an abundance of caution, local authorities made available iodine pills, which protect users against radioactive iodine and help prevent thyroid cancer in case of an accident.