Russia has said it will not yet allow international inspectors to access Europe’s largest nuclear power plant despite fears over the state of the Ukrainian facility under Moscow’s occupation.
Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations of targeting the Zaporizhzhia plant in southern Ukraine, which has been under Russian control since March following Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour.
The site has suffered weeks of sporadic shelling that has caused fires and damaged buildings in the sprawling facility.
Rafael Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief, has said that while there was no immediate threat to nuclear safety that could “change at any minute”.
“These military actions near such a large nuclear facility could lead to very serious consequences,” he told the UN Security Council at an emergency meeting on Thursday night.
However Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to international missions in Vienna, told the Izvestia newspaper in an interview published on Friday that a visit by Grossi could not take place before “the end of August or early September”.
Russia has already rejected demands to demilitarise the facility.
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly warned that Russia’s control of the plant creates a radiation danger for Europe. “Only the complete withdrawal of Russians from the territory of the Zaporizhzhia . . . and the restoration of Ukraine’s full control over the situation around the plant will guarantee the restoration of nuclear safety for all of Europe,” he said in his most recent nightly address on Thursday.
But Russia has refused demands to return control of the plant to Ukraine.
“The only way to ensure security at the plant is to have 100 per cent control over it. Ukraine’s government are in no state to do that” while fighting the war, Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian lawmaker in the upper house of parliament, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news wire.
Kosachev warned that allowing “any people from outside without the requisite competencies will carry the risk of further provocations”.
A Kyiv official said Ukraine is considering evacuating its citizens around the power plant.
International calls for access to the plant came after unconfirmed reports of felled power lines that could have been used to divert the plant’s electricity into Russian-occupied territories like the Crimean peninsula.
The power plant’s two operational reactors are still connected to the Ukrainian grid.
Russian forces have shelled the nearby city of Nikopol from the vicinity of the plant for months now, while Ukraine says it has held back retaliatory fire out of fear for damaging the plant.
Ukrainian officials say some 500 Russian troops are stationed at the plant and that the Russians have prepared the facility with traps to stop any Ukrainian attempts to retake it by force.
Spent fuel rods are stored in pools of water in the vicinity of the plant whose six 950MW reactors used to generate about half of Ukraine’s nuclear power before the war.
The reactors are housed in reinforced building materials and are not at risk of catastrophic damage from errant shells, according to a Ukrainian engineer who worked on the plant’s design in the 1980s and spoke under the condition of anonymity.
“The real danger is if the electricity supply required to keep the plant functional is disrupted for a long period of time,” he said. “That starts a series of problems which could suddenly become quite alarming, especially if the plant engineers cannot keep circulating the large amounts of water that are needed to maintain the nuclear reactions at predictable levels.”