After almost six months under Russian control, Europe's largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporiyia plant, received the first team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Thursday. "The IAEA mission has arrived at the power plant," Fredrik Dahl, IAEA spokesman and part of the team, confirmed to the EFE news agency. "We now have a very important mission to accomplish," said IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. "We are going to start quickly to check the safety conditions at the plant, and to immediately contact [...] the workers at the complex".
Although the infrastructure and a large part of the neighbouring territories - such as Enerhodar, a satellite town of the Zaporiyia plant - are in the hands of the Russian army, it is Ukrainian officials who, since 4 March, have been in charge of the plant's operations.
👷 @RafaelMGrossi and a team of experts & inspectors have set off for the IAEA Support & Assistance Mission to #Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ), to help ensure nuclear safety and security at #Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya NPP and undertake vital safeguards activities.— IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency (@iaeaorg) August 29, 2022
👉 https://t.co/IrcPxHuukI pic.twitter.com/0IzcLDYsxO
It took several weeks of negotiations for the unit - made up of 14 experts who arrived at the site at around 14:15 local time on Thursday in a convoy of nine vehicles - to gain access to the facility. After months of fighting worryingly close to the nuclear infrastructure, the IAEA team hopes to be able to analyse the situation at the plant and its damaged facilities and assess the potential for a nuclear disaster during a mission that is expected to last until Friday 3 September, according to the Russian-appointed governor for the territory of Zaporiyia, Yevhen Balytskyi.
The Vienna-based UN agency is also considering the option of establishing a permanent representation at the plant to independently monitor the situation and act as a deterrent to a possible upsurge in violence, fearing that a nuclear accident in Zaporiyia would be on a much larger scale than the one at Chernobyl. "It is time to stop playing with fire and take concrete steps to protect these and other facilities from any military operation," warned the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, arguing that in the event of a nuclear disaster, the Red Cross would not have the necessary capabilities to provide needed humanitarian assistance.
A weeks-long delay - of negotiations, agreements and persuasion - in the arrival of the inspectors did not prevent a last-minute increase in shelling in the region from delaying the IAEA team's entry into the plant by three hours.
"After having come this far we are not going to stop," Grossi said from Zaporiyia, some 120 kilometres from the eponymous nuclear power plant. "We know that there is an area, the so-called 'grey zone' between the last line of Ukrainian defence and the front line of Russian forces, where the risks are most significant." "We consider that we have the minimum conditions to move, accepting that the risk is very, very high," he said.
And although the whole of Europe keeps its eyes on the IAEA mission, the war does not stop. The attacks continue. And Zaporiyia remains a battleground. Just this Thursday, one of the plant's six reactors had to be shut down and disconnected from the Ukrainian power system as an emergency precaution in the face of a further increase in shelling and attacks in the area. The plant, which was already disconnected from the country's power grid last Thursday, had so far kept only two reactors operational.
Accusations flew in all directions. On the one hand, Ukrainian sources blamed Russia for having "been firing on Enerhodar, the satellite town of the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), since 05:00 local time on 1 September", in the words of the former Ukrainian mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlo, in order to hinder the arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at the Zaporiyia plant. "You can hear the sound of machine gun fire," Orlov said, also lamenting the presence of wounded and dead civilians. "The number of casualties has not yet been confirmed," he added.
Russia, for its part, claimed that it was Kiev that had tried to "take over" the nuclear plant through sabotage groups. "Today, at around 06:00 am, Ukrainian troops [divided] into two sabotage groups and seven ships docked on the shore of the Kakhovka reservoir [very close to the town of Energodar], three kilometres northeast of the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant, and tried to seize it," Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
In any case - and in the face of accusations that have so far not been confirmed by any independent source - the country is preparing for a possible disaster. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has already announced plans to increase mandatory evacuations of civilians, while residents closest to the plant are receiving the first iodine tablets.
"The situation remains very risky and dangerous. Any [...] disconnection of the plant from the grid, any action by Russia that could trigger the shutdown of the reactors, will once again bring the plant to the brink of disaster," said Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky.