By: Associated Press – A team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog on Monday started its journey to the Zaporizhzhia atomic power plant at the heart of the fighting in Ukraine, a long-awaited mission to inspect crucial safety systems that the world hopes will help avoid a catastrophe.
Offsetting that rare ray of hope, Ukraine and Russia again accused each other of stoking the conflict by shelling the wider region around the plant, which had already been briefly knocked offline last week.
That incident heightened the dread of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, and officials began handing out anti-radiation iodine tablets shortly after.
To avoid such a disaster, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi has for months sought access to the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s biggest, which has been occupied by Russian forces and run by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the six-month-old war.
“The day has come,” Grossi tweeted, adding that the Vienna-based IAEA’s “Support and Assistance Mission … is now on its way.” It is slated to arrive later this week. Grossi didn’t provide a more precise timeline or give further details beyond posting a picture of himself with 13 other experts.
His announcement came as Ukraine accused Russia of new rocket and artillery strikes at or near the plant, intensifying fears that the fighting could cause a massive radiation leak. The facility, which has six reactors, was already temporarily knocked offline under the barrage of shelling last week.
Ukraine has alleged that Russia is essentially holding the plant hostage, storing weapons there, and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.
Ukraine reported shelling in Nikopol, the city across the Dnieper river from the nuclear power plant, and said one person was killed and five others were wounded. In Enerhodar, just a few kilometers from the plant, the city’s Ukrainian mayor, Dmytro Orlov, blamed Russian shelling for injuries to at least 10 residents.
“Apparently, (the Russians) have rehearsed their scenario ahead of the arrival of the IAEA mission,” Orlov said on Telegram.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that it is “without an exaggeration, this mission will be the hardest in the history of IAEA.”
“We expect from the mission a clear statement of facts, of violation of all nuclear, of nuclear safety protocols. We know that Russia is putting not only Ukraine, but also the entire world at threat at the risk of nuclear accident,” Kuleba said in Stockholm.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukraine of shelling in and around the plant.
“We believe that all countries must raise pressure on the Ukrainian side to force it to stop threatening the European continent by shelling the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and surrounding areas,” he said.
Peskov noted that Russia will ensure the security of the IAEA mission “in view of the constant threats linked to the relentless shelling by the Ukrainian side.”
Ukraine’s atomic energy agency has painted an ominous picture of the threat by issuing a map forecasting where radiation could spread from the Zaporizhzhia plant, which Russian forces have controlled since soon after the war began.
Away from Zaporizhzhia, the Ukraine military claimed it had breached Russia’s first line of defense in some sections near Kherson just north of the Crimean Peninsula, an advance that would represent a strategic breakthrough if confirmed.
Reports about Ukrainian forces preparing for the counteroffensive in the south of the country, namely in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, have circulated for weeks. Russian-installed officials in the region on Monday announced the evacuation of residents of nearby Nova Kakhovka, a city frequently targeted by Kyiv’s forces, to bomb shelters from their workplaces. The officials cited Ukrainian rocket strikes on the city.
But in a war rife with claims and counterclaims that are hard to independently verify, the Moscow-appointed regional leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed the Ukrainian assertion of a counteroffensive in the Kherson region as false, noting that the Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy losses in the south and elsewhere.
The highest number of casualties — eight civilians killed and seven wounded — over the past 24 hours was reported in the eastern Donetsk region. The Russian forces carried out strikes on the cities of Sloviansk and Kostyantynivka overnight and the Ukrainian governor of the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, urged the remaining residents to evacuate immediately.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was hit with cluster munitions on Monday morning, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov reported.
Ukraine’s presidential office also reported heavy fighting and multiple Ukrainian strikes in the southern Kherson region, most of which is occupied by the Russians. Ukrainian forces have recently been carrying out strikes on ammunition depots and Russian military positions there.