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Two cooling towers are pictured on the premises of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. ABACA/PA Images

UN nuclear watchdog warns of 'grave hour' at Ukraine nuclear plant following shelling

Rafael Grossi said the International Atomic Energy Agency must be allowed to inspect the Zaporizhzhia plant “as soon as possible”.

LAST UPDATE | 11 Aug 2022

THE HEAD OF the UN nuclear watchdog has told the Security Council that the agency must be allowed to inspect Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, saying that fighting near the site has sparked a “grave” crisis.

“This is a serious hour, a grave hour and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) must be allowed to conduct its mission to Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible,” Rafael Grossi told an emergency meeting of the Security Council via video feed.

The nuclear plant in southern Ukraine is Europe’s largest and has been occupied by Russian troops since March, shortly after Moscow launched its invasion on 24 February.

Their forces have clashed at and around Zaporizhzhia, leading to urgent international calls for an end to fighting around the plant.

And Washington has said it supports calls by the UN and others to establish a demilitarized zone around the plant.

The US State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security Bonnie Jenkins supported the idea of an IAEA mission to Ukraine.

“This visit cannot wait any longer,” she told the Council, adding that the only way to ensure nuclear safety would be for Moscow to end its war.

“The United States calls for the Russian Federation to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s territory,” Jenkins said. “This would allow for Ukraine to restore the impeccable safety, security, and safeguards performance it upheld for decades at the facility.”

But Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya put the blame for the violence around Zaporizhzhia squarely on Ukrainian forces.

“We call on states that support the Kyiv regime to bring their proxies into check to compel them to immediately and once and for all stop attacks on Zaporizhzhia nuclear power to ensure the safe conditions for the conduct of the IAEA mission,” Nebenzya told the Council.

“This is the only way to prevent a major radioactive catastrophe on the European continent, the risk of which is now more real than ever,” Nebenzya added. “If Ukrainian Armed Forces attacks continue, this could take place at any time.”

The two sides have traded blame over a recent escalation in fighting around the nuclear facility, which was captured by Russian forces soon after their invasion.

Russia – a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – called for the emergency meeting to address the crisis at the complex.

‘React immediately’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the international community to “react immediately” to force Russian forces to leave the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

“The entire world must react immediately to chase out the occupiers from Zaporizhzhia,” Zelenskyy said in his daily video address.

“Only the Russians’ full withdrawal… would guarantee nuclear safety for all of Europe,” he added, condemning “Russian nuclear blackmail”.

Bombardment near the plant also occurred last week, raising the spectre of a nuclear catastrophe in a country which suffered the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Ukraine’s nuclear agency Energoatom said today there had been fresh Russian shelling near one of the plant’s six reactors that had caused “extensive smoke” and “several radiation sensors are damaged”.

russian-war-on-ukraine-destruction-in-kushuhum A man walks to the epicentre of a huge crater caused by Russian shelling in the Zaporizhzhia region. Dmytro Smolyenko Dmytro Smolyenko

Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Moscow-installed regional administration, said Ukrainian forces “once again struck” the plant on messaging app Telegram.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres also said in a statement that continued hostilities around the facility could “lead to disaster”.

He urged both sides “to cease immediately” all military activity near the power plant.

‘State sponsor of terrorism’

The Soviet-era plant in southern Ukraine was captured by Russian troops at the beginning of March — shortly after Moscow launched its invasion and has remained on the frontline since then.

“Russia has turned the nuclear station into a battlefield,” Zelenskyy said, addressing a Ukraine donors conference in Copenhagen by video link.

He called for stronger sanctions against Russia saying it was a “terrorist state” — on the same day that Latvian MPs adopted a resolution calling Russia a “state sponsor of terrorism”.

The statement said Russia’s actions in Ukraine constituted “targeted genocide against the Ukrainian people” and said the use of violence against civilians should be considered “terrorism”.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hailed it as a “timely move” and urged other countries to follow suit, while Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called it “xenophobia”.

Latvia has also urged all EU countries to ban tourist visas for Russian citizens and said the measure should be extended to Belarusians because of the Belarusian regime’s support for the invasion.

‘They will advance’

The fighting meanwhile rumbled on in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting against Ukrainian forces since 2014.

In the bombed-out town of Soledar, the few residents left are living in underground shelters.

“We hope for the best, but every day it turns out worse and worse,” said Svitlana Klymenko, 62, as the relentless shelling continued outside.

Another man living in the shelter, 59-year-old Oleg Makeev said: “You can’t cook anything normally here, you can’t wash yourself. How am I supposed to feel?”.

A soldier, 27-year-old Mykhailo, who had the word “Freedom” tattooed over one eye, said the military were also “sitting in the trenches”.

“There is a lot of their artillery, mortars, and we cannot react, we have nothing.”

“They will advance further,” he said. “We hide more than do anything useful.”

© AFP 2022

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