The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday that a preliminary assessment from his agency’s experts concluded there was no immediate threat to nuclear safety following shelling around a major nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, but he cautioned that “could change at any moment.”
“We certainly can all agree that any nuclear catastrophe would be unacceptable, and therefore, preventing it should be our overarching goal,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told the U.N. Security Council in a video briefing.
"To achieve that, I ask that both sides cooperate with the IAEA and allow for a mission to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to proceed as soon as possible,” he said.
Grossi said that recently the situation at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, and in particular at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site, has been “deteriorating rapidly, to the point of becoming very alarming.”
A team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has been trying since June to send a technical mission to check the Zaporizhzhia site. It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
“But unfortunately, due to political factors and other considerations, it was not possible,” he said. “We have seen what has happened over the past two months; we cannot allow such factors to delay us any longer.”
Russia took over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on March 4, stationing troops there and keeping the Ukrainian staff in place to run it.
Ukraine and Russia blame each other for shelling around the site since August 6, including reports of new shelling earlier Thursday.
IAEA chief Grossi said it was urgent for him and his experts to go to Zaporizhzhia to assess physical damage to the facilities, evaluate working conditions of the control room staff, and perform maintenance on all IAEA safeguard equipment.
“The mission to the site would also allow us to perform urgent safeguards activities – verifying the status of the reactors and the inventories of nuclear material, including fresh and spent fuel storage, where we currently have no remote data transfer of surveillance,” he said.
The IAEA needs both Ukrainian and Russian authorization and assistance to reach Zaporizhzhia because it is held in territory Russian troops currently hold.
“We stand ready to provide the mission with all necessary assistance and facilitate its travel through Ukrainian-controlled territory,” Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told the council.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said his government hoped the IAEA mission to Zaporizhzhia would happen soon.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the parties to use “common sense and reason” and to not target Zaporizhzhia. In a statement Thursday, he called on them to immediately cease military activities near the nuclear plant, as well as withdraw any military personnel and equipment from the site.
“The facility must not be used as part of any military operation,” Guterres warned.
He said the parties should urgently agree on a perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area.
“Russia is not using civilian infrastructure, without mentioning nuclear facilities, for that purpose,” Nebenzia told the Security Council, dismissing the U.N. chief’s proposal. “This is a tactic of Ukrainian armed forces.”
Ukraine’s envoy said Moscow’s shelling of Zaporizhzhia served a larger purpose.
“Russian plans regarding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant aim at disconnecting it from the energy system of Ukraine and cutting off electricity in the south of the country,” Kyslytsya said.
The United States called on Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukrainian nuclear facilities and to return full control of Zaporizhzhia to Ukraine.
Bonnie Jenkins, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, also expressed support for Ukraine’s proposal to create a demilitarized zone around the plant and for the IAEA mission.
“This visit cannot wait any longer,” she told council members.