Ukraine said the reactor at its Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was shut down on Thursday by Russian shelling shortly before a UN nuclear team was due to visit the site, while Moscow said it thwarted Ukraine’s attempt to seize the plant.
Both sides have accused the other of trying to sabotage an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visit to the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in south-central Ukraine, which is controlled by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian personnel.
A Reuters reporter in Russian-controlled Energodar near the plant said a residential building had been hit by shelling and forced people to take shelter in the basement. It was not possible to establish who fired. Soldiers were running around, helicopters were flying overhead.
Conditions at the nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, have been deteriorating for weeks, with Moscow and Kyiv regularly trading accusations of shelling nearby and fueling fears of a Chernobyl-style radiation disaster.
Earlier, the head of the IAEA told reporters in the city of Zaporozhye, about 55 kilometers from the plant, that he was aware of “increased military activity in the area” but would insist on his plan to visit the site and meet with staff.
“Having come this far, we are not stopping,” said Rafael Grossi, who heads the mission.
Shortly thereafter, the operator Energoatom announced the shutdown of one of the plant’s two operating reactors.
“As a result of yet another mortar attack by Russian… forces at the Zaporozhye NPP site, emergency protection went off and the operating fifth power unit was shut down,” Energoatom wrote in the Telegram messenger.
“Power unit No. 6 continues to operate in the energy system of Ukraine” and supplies electricity for the power plant’s own needs, the report said.
MURAT YUKSELIR/GLOBUS AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS
Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukrainian forces of trying to take over the station, as well as shelling both the meeting place of the IAEA delegation and the nuclear plant itself.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that up to 60 Ukrainian troops crossed the Dnieper River, which shares territory held by the two sides, in boats at 6:00 am local time (03:00 GMT), which it said was ” provocation.” aimed at disrupting the planned visit of the IAEA.
The ministry said that “measures have been taken” to destroy enemy troops, including with the use of combat aircraft.
In addition, local Russian-appointed official Volodymyr Rogov told state-run RT that Ukrainian forces launched the attack out of “despair” over a visit by IAEA inspectors. According to him, the Ukrainian assault detachments are now pinned down by Russian aircraft.
The Russian state news agency TASS reported that residential areas in the town of Energodar, where the Zaporozhye plant is located, came under “massive” shelling by Ukrainian troops at night, citing Russian-appointed authorities.
Reuters was unable to independently verify Russian reports or Ukrainian reports of shelling of the plant by Russian troops.
Grossi said on Wednesday that the goal of the IAEA’s mission is “to prevent a nuclear accident.”
Russian officials have suggested that the UN nuclear watchdog team will have just one day to inspect the nuclear power plant while the mission prepares for a longer period.
“If we can establish a permanent presence or a permanent presence, it will be extended. But this first segment will take several days,” Grossi said.
The head of the Zaporozhye region, Alexander Starukh, said that Russian troops fired on the route of the IAEA mission, which was planned to reach the power plant.
Reuters journalists who followed the IAEA convoy before being ordered to turn back due to dangerous conditions said they saw flashes of explosions in the sky over the city of Zaporozhye at night.
The loud air raid siren sounded at around 6 am as they were preparing to leave the hotel with the IAEA mission.
Both sides have claimed successes on the battlefield amid a new Ukrainian drive to reclaim territory in the south.
“This is a very slow process because we value people,” said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, referring to the Ukrainian offensive.
Moscow denied reports of Ukraine’s successes and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.
Russia seized large areas in southern Ukraine close to the Black Sea coast in the first weeks of the more than six-month-long war, including in the Kherson region north of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.
Elsewhere, Ukraine repelled Russian attacks in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, towns north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, the general staff of its armed forces said.
The General Staff added on Wednesday that pro-Russian troops were focusing their efforts on Bakhmut, seeking to expand control over Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland to the east.
Russia-backed separatists said Thursday that 13 emergency personnel were killed and nine wounded after they came under fire from Ukrainian artillery in the Russian-controlled part of Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.
Russia sent its troops across the border on February 24 for what it called a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities.
Ukraine and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression that has caused millions to flee, thousands to die and cities to fall into ruins.
Ukraine says Russia used the plant as a shield to strike cities, knowing it would be difficult for Ukraine to fire back. He also blamed Russian forces for shelling the plant.
Russia denies this and says the radiation levels at the station are normal. He also accuses the Ukrainians of attacking the plant to try to stir up outrage in the hope that it will lead to the creation of a demilitarized zone.
Grossi said that such a status is a political issue for countries in conflict.