The Kremlin has said it wants international inspectors to visit a major Russian-controlled nuclear power station near the frontline in occupied southeastern Ukraine, as the United Nations secretary general urged Moscow to rule out any shutdown of Europe’s biggest atomic plant.
Kyiv says Russian troops are dicing with nuclear disaster by allegedly hiding armoured vehicles and heavy weapons in the Zaporizhzhia power station and using it as a “nuclear shield” from which to fire on Ukrainian positions across the Dnieper river.
Moscow’s military says Ukraine is to blame for shelling that has damaged power lines and radiation detectors at the six-reactor plant, and this week rejected calls from Kyiv and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres for the “demilitarisation” of the facility through the withdrawal of Russian arms and troops.
Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to French counterpart Emmanuel Macron about the issue by phone on Friday, and the Kremlin said he “stressed that systematic shelling by the Ukrainian military of the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant creates the danger of a large-scale catastrophe that could lead to radiation contamination of vast territories.”
The two leaders also “noted the importance” of sending an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to the plant “as soon as possible” to “assess the real situation at the site. The Russian side confirmed its readiness to provide the agency’s inspectors with the required assistance,” the Kremlin added.
The Elysee Palace said Mr Macron had expressed his concern about the Zaporizhzhia plant and that Mr Putin had agreed that an IAEA expert mission should visit the site.
It is not clear whether Moscow has dropped a previous demand that any IAEA mission to Zaporizhzhia travel there through Russia – something Kyiv says the Kremlin would try to use to add legitimacy to its occupation of swathes of eastern and southeastern Ukraine.
As well as rejecting calls for a demilitarised zone around the plant, Russia also warned this week that it may consider putting its two operating reactors into “cold reserve”, effectively shutting down the facility. Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, Energoatom, said disconnection from the national grid would pose a major safety hazard to the power station.
“Obviously the electricity from Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian electricity and it’s necessary especially during the winter for the Ukrainian people. And this principle must be fully respected,” Mr Guterres said during a visit to the Black Sea port of Odesa on Friday.
He visited the city’s harbour to see grain being loaded onto a ship under a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey last month to end a five-month Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports.
About 600,000 tonnes of grain and other agricultural products have been shipped from Ukraine this month under the agreement, with some 20 million tonnes still in storage. The deal is expected to bring in vital revenue for the country and ease fears of hunger in parts of Asia and Africa.
“This is an agreement between two parties locked in bitter conflict. It is unprecedented in scope and scale. But there is still a long way to go on many fronts,” Mr Guterres said.