A team of international nuclear inspectors was heading Wednesday to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant caught in the middle of the fighting in southern Ukraine amid international concern of a potential accident or radiation leak.
Rafael Grossi, the head of the the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he hoped to establish a permanent mission in Ukraine to monitor Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
“These operations are very complex operations. We are going to a war zone. We are going to occupied territory. And this requires explicit guarantees from not only from the Russians, but also from the Republic of Ukraine,” Grossi said in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv before the monitoring the mission’s departure.
“We have been able to secure that. ... So now we are moving.”
The power plant has been occupied by Russian forces and operated by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the 6-month-old war.
Also read: Russia, Ukraine trade claims of nuclear plant attacks
It was recently cut off temporarily from the electrical grid because of fire damage, causing a blackout in the region and heightening fears of a catastrophe in a country haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.
Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko said Kyiv is seeking international assistance to try and demilitarize the area.
“We think that the mission should be a very important step to return (the plant) to Ukrainian government control by the end of the year,” Galushchenko told The Associated Press.
“We have information that they are now trying to hide their military presence, so they should check all of this.”
Zaporizhzhia is a vital source of energy for Ukraine and remains connected to its power grid. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of shelling the wider region around the nuclear power plant and the risks are so severe that officials have begun distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents. Grossi met Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss the mission that is expected to last several days. The inspectors from the IAEA, a United Nations body, where due to reach the Zaporizhzhia region, 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of the Ukrainian capital, later Wednesday.