The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bombs fall as U.N. inspectors reach embattled Ukrainian nuclear plant

Russian military vehicles escort a convoy with experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who reached the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Thursday to begin a long-awaited inspection. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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KYIV, Ukraine — A team of U.N. nuclear experts made an initial inspection at the embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday after traversing a contested stretch of southeastern Ukraine besieged by mortar shelling and small weapons fire.

“I have just completed a first tour of the key areas that we wanted to see,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a video message from the plant. “Of course there is a lot more to do. My team is staying on.”

Grossi said the goal of his multiday inspection was to set up a permanent monitoring mission at the plant and assess the safety situation there. It is unclear how extensive his team’s access will be after his departure.

The nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, is controlled by Russian forces but operated by Ukrainian engineers. Over the past few months, it has experienced a frightening array of artillery barrages, uncontrolled fires and power outages with a skeleton crew of workers sometimes held at gunpoint.

Grossi arrived at the plant in a convoy of armored vehicles and departed several hours later. According to Ukraine’s nuclear power company, Energoatom, he left behind a core team of five experts to continue the inspection until Saturday.

The IAEA group entered the plant after shelling by Russian troops forced a shutdown of a reactor, the power company said. A backup power line was damaged in the process.

The team’s mission is to check on the plant’s safety systems, review the damage done to the complex and interview workers, who Ukrainian officials say have been subject to intimidation and abuse at the hands of the Russian military. More than 1,000 workers are servicing the plant — about 10 percent of its usual workforce.

The plant’s six nuclear reactors require a constant power supply to keep cool. The facility was disconnected from its power source last week after shelling and a fire and required the use of emergency generators, Ukrainian officials said. Nuclear experts hope the IAEA mission will lead to a backup system that’s more sophisticated than the current fleet of diesel generators, which can run only for a limited amount of time.

Grossi had been negotiating a visit to the plant since March, when Russian forces first seized the facility. A proposal to enter through Russian-occupied Crimea was rejected by Ukraine, which viewed that itinerary as an affront to its sovereignty.

After overcoming those political hurdles, the visit nearly fell through on Thursday after shelling near the designated route. Grossi acknowledged the presence of “increased military activity” but said the mission was too important to abandon.

“Having come so far, we are not stopping,” he said.

On the way, he and his team were held up at a Ukrainian checkpoint for more than three hours, according to the IAEA, which released images of the stalled convoy. Grossi, who appeared visibly irritated, “personally negotiated with Ukrainian military authorities to be able to proceed,” an IAEA spokesman said.

Though both Ukraine and Russia provided security assurances to the IAEA team, no cease-fire exists between the warring sides. Ukraine said Russia was endangering the route to the plant. Both sides have repeatedly accused the other of shelling the facility.

Ukrainian officials have called on Russian forces to vacate the plant. Those troops have refused to leave, saying they are there to ensure its safety.