Russia told the International Atomic Energy Agency that its military had taken control of territory around Ukraine’s biggest nuclear power plant as diplomats hold an emergency meeting to voice their mounting concern over safety with fighting escalating.
Ukraine authorities say they maintain control of the Zaporizhzhya facility itself and that a combat-ready military unit remains within the perimeter. Some residents from the nearby town of Enerhodar erected barricades to the plant, according to multiple online accounts.
The IAEA convened an extraordinary meeting in Vienna on Wednesday, just hours after Russian officials informed Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi that they controlled access to the plant. Zaporizhzhya is Europe’s largest nuclear power installation. Its six reactors sit on a cape that abuts the Dnieper River with only a single road leading in or out.
“The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented and I continue to be gravely concerned,” Grossi said. “It is the first time a military conflict is happening amidst the facilities of a large, established nuclear power program, which in this case also include the site of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.”
In a statement, the agency urged Russian forces to allow the plant operators to make decisions “free of undue pressure,” and avoid combat that could escalate the situation into an atomic-safety incident. Any attack would constitute a breach of international law, it said.
Earlier this week, the head of Ukraine’s nuclear-power utility called on international monitors to intervene to ensure the safety of the country’s 15 atomic reactors. Radiation around the defunct Chernobyl plant, which Russia also controls, are at low levels and do not pose a threat to human health, the IAEA said.
Energoatom chief Petro Kotin asked the IAEA to help erect a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) safe zone around the country’s four nuclear power plants. Grossi said he studied the proposal but the agency is more focused on helping safely operate the plants amid the conflict.
“The IAEA has no power to enforce an exclusion zone,” he said Wednesday during a press conference, adding that he’s in touch with Russian officials about the situation. Grossi said earlier Russian claims that Ukraine is a proliferation threat are baseless and that nuclear material in the country was accounted for.
Canada and Poland have submitted a draft resolution to the IAEA condemning Russian aggression near the plants, which has drawn U.S. support.
“These are extraordinary circumstances, and Russia’s actions directly threaten the IAEA’s core missions of nuclear safety, security, and safeguards,” U.S. deputy ambassador Louis Bono said in a statement.
“We view with grave concern Russian armed forces in the vicinity of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, and in particular claims that its armed forces control the territory around the Zaporizhzhya facility.”
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