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U.N. nuclear inspectors depart for Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia plant

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said a team of nuclear experts has been deployed to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. File Photo by Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said a team of nuclear experts has been deployed to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. File Photo by Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE

Aug. 29 (UPI) -- The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog said Monday that a team of inspectors was on its way to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, following mounting fears that fighting in the region could result in nuclear catastrophe.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been calling for a mission to be sent to the facility since early in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and has been steadily increasing those calls amid recent reports that the plant has been repeatedly damaged by shelling.

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Grossi announced that his team was heading to Europe's largest nuclear plant located in southeastern Ukraine in a tweet Monday, stating they will arrive later this week.

"The day has come," he said, adding that he was leading the IAEA's Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya. "We must protect the safety and security of #Ukraine's and Europe's biggest nuclear facility."

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Fears over the security and safety of the plant began to rise after Russian forces took control of the facility in early March, with Ukrainian officials since accusing the Kremlin's occupation as "nuclear blackmail."

In recent weeks, shelling in the area has repeatedly damaged the facility including over the weekend, though officials say all safety systems remain operational.

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Over the weekend, Ukraine's state energy operator Energoatom said in a statement that due to the renewed shelling "there are risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering or radioactive substances."

The risk of fire was also "high," it said.

Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, has been occupied by Russian forces since early March. Photo by Sergei Supinsky/EPA-EFE

Grossi said in a statement Sunday that the latest round of shelling underlines the risk of a potential nuclear accident at the the facility, which is home to six nuclear reactors, and that he was continuing consultations with all parties to send a mission to the plant in the next few days.

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Specifics of the agreement were not released, but Grossi has said the mission would assess the physical damage to the site, determine whether the main and back-up safety and security systems were functional and evaluate the staff's working conditions.

While some 500 Russian soldiers utilize the plant as a base, it is still being operated by Ukrainian workers.

On Wednesday, the sixth month anniversary of the start of the war, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that he's "gravely concerned" about the plant and any actions that might endanger its physical integrity, safety and security are "simply unacceptable."

"The warning lights are flashing," he said in his remarks, calling for an IAEA mission to be sent to the plant.

"Any further escalation of the situation could lead to self destruction," he said. "The security of the plant must be ensured, and the plant must be re-established as purely civilian infrastructure."

Earlier this month, the United States along with the other members of the Group of Seven nations demanded that Russia return control of the Zaporizhzhia plant and all other nuclear facilities within Ukraine's borders to Kyiv.

While Russia and Ukraine trade blame over shelling that threatens the plant, the G7 has laid responsibility with the Kremlin, stating "[i]t is Russia's continued control of the plant that endangers the region."

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In a statement published by Germany's federal foreign office early Monday, the G7 said it "welcomes" the IAEA-led mission and Guterres' efforts that made it possible while reaffirming the facility and the electricity it produces belong to Ukraine.

"We underline that Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant should not be used of military activities or the storage of military material," the nations said.

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