UN inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have arrived Thursday to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine, after their mission was earlier approved by both the Ukrainian side and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"A Reuters reporter saw the IAEA team arrive at the plant in a large convoy with a heavy presence of Russian soldiers nearby," Al Jazeera writes, noting that the convoy had been slightly delayed due to fresh shelling in the area. The inspectors also confirmed their safe arrival on Twitter.
The IAEA mission has reached the Vasilyevka checkpoint in Russian-controlled territory, around 60km from the Zaporozhye NPP pic.twitter.com/tRR9W58N7U— Russians With Attitude (@RWApodcast) September 1, 2022
The UN-IAEA convoy was seen being waved through Russian checkpoints in the Russian-controlled town of Enerhodar en route to the site amid "increased military activity in the area". Each side is blaming the other for the fresh shelling. An IAEA spokesperson said the mission had been delayed for three hours as the team was held up on the Ukrainian side of the frontline before being given permission to pass.
In its latest statement, Russia's defense ministry has denounced the efforts of Ukrainian "saboteurs" alleged to have attempted to seize the plant just as the IAEA was en route.
The New York Times has since confirmed the team is at the site, which is Europe's largest nuclear power station, but which has been under control of some 500 Russian troops since March:
"The I.A.E.A. mission arrived" at the plant, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, Energoatom, said on the Telegram messaging app. A convoy of nine vehicles entered the complex around 2:15 p.m. local time, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
As the U.N. experts set off on Thursday morning in a convoy of armored S.U.V.s toward the dangerous buffer zone separating the two armies in southern Ukraine, Russian mortar shells struck the plant, Energoatom said, causing equipment failures that forced the shutdown of one reactor and the activation of backup generators at another.
A key aspect of the UN team's mission is to gather accurate technical data and to interview the Ukrainian technicians and engineers who have been keeping it operational. Further they will assess the extent of damage after the complex has been impact by shelling on multiple occasions.
"The extent of damage from the strikes was not immediately clear, and there were no reports of heightened radiation levels around the facility," the NY Times observed of Thursday's fighting in the area.
The Times described further that the team being led by agency chief Rafael Grossi proceeded even as artillery fire was exchanged nearby: "The urgency of the threat prompted the U.N. team, which includes 14 experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to make the last-minute decision to proceed to the plant even as the thud of artillery strikes was heard in the parking lot of their hotel 30 miles away," according to the report.
Grossi has emphasized that the mission will proceed as planned despite the "inherent risks". At the same time, the risk of some kind of catastrophic nuclear or radiation event grows by the day, per CNN:
The fifth reactor at the nuclear power plant was shut down and its emergency protection system activated on Thursday due to shelling, Ukraine's nuclear operator Energoatom said in a statement. The plant, which was disconnected from the country's power grid last Thursday, has six reactors, only two of which have been functioning.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government is accusing the Russians of trying disrupt the IAEA visit, also following accusations that Ukrainian personnel at Zaporizhzhia were tortured in order to cover up the true status of the plant's operations.