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Russia, Ukraine open to IAEA visit after ‘suicidal’ nuclear plant strike

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar, Ukraine, as seen on Aug. 4. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Diplomats raised the alarm Monday over reported shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine, urging Russian and Ukrainian forces to halt the fighting and allow United Nations inspectors access to the site.

A series of blasts hit the plant on Friday, causing some damage and partially disconnecting a reactor from Ukraine’s electricity grid — although no radioactive leak was detected. Russian forces control the complex, which has six nuclear reactors and is the largest of its kind in Europe, but Ukrainian staff still operate the plant.

U.N. chief António Guterres on Monday called any attack on a nuclear facility “suicidal” and demanded that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, be allowed to enter Zaporizhzhia.

“Russia must immediately cease occupation of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and withdraw its military equipment,” Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said Monday on Twitter.

Over the weekend, IAEA director Rafael Grossi warned in a statement that the shelling raised the “very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond.”

U.N. watchdog warns of ‘nuclear disaster’ from shelling at Zaporizhzhia plant

Both Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the explosions. Ukraine accused Russia of using the plant as a shield for artillery and rocket fire, while Russia says Ukraine has launched its own strikes in the area.

Moscow indicated Monday that it would allow IAEA inspectors to access the site but offered no details on how it would facilitate a visit. Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear energy — its 15 functional reactors, six of them in Zaporizhzhia, provide about half of the country’s electricity, according to the IAEA.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, also told The Washington Post that Kyiv supports a U.N. team coming to the nuclear site “as soon as possible.”

“We want the watchdog to come to the power plant and check on the status to verify how the nuclear materials are being used,” he said. “And we also want the organization to prepare a report about the violations of nuclear security that Russia is committing in Zaporizhzhia.”

But experts say that the area would first need to be demilitarized so that monitors could enter safely.

“In the middle of a war zone, the IAEA would need support from the U.N. Security Council and they would need military protection,” said Jon Wolfsthal, former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council.

Ukraine was the site of a 1986 nuclear meltdown that sent a radioactive cloud over Europe. The specter of the disaster at Chernobyl has loomed large amid the fighting around Zaporizhzhia.

“Our country has lived through Chernobyl and, understandably, every person and the country has a special attention to these issues,” Zaporizhzhia’s regional governor, Oleksandr Starukh, said on state television, adding that “everything is more or less under control.”

But over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the international community to hold Russia accountable for the attack.

“There is no such nation in the world that can feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant,” he said. “God forbid. If something irreparable happens, no one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination.”

Jennifer Hassan, Adam Taylor, Kostiantyn Khudov and John Hudson contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

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