Europe’s largest nuclear power plant faced new danger Thursday as Ukraine accused Russian forces of shelling the site — and the route a team of international inspectors were taking in a bid to secure its safety after weeks of growing alarm about a radiation disaster.
The United Nations mission vowed to press on, even as the two sides traded fresh accusations that the other was endangering its members as well as the plant’s nuclear reactors. But the team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency was delayed amid the fighting.
“The IAEA mission has been delayed on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the frontline for some three hours,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent by email.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi “has personally negotiated with Ukrainian military authorities to be able to proceed and he remains determined that this important mission reaches the [Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant] today,” the spokesperson said.
Moscow officials blamed Kyiv for the eruption of fierce fighting around the plant, which is in southern Ukraine but under Russian occupation. Its defense ministry said Ukrainian troops had attempted a daring amphibious landing in an effort to seize back control of the plant and disrupt the U.N. mission.
NBC News could not immediately verify the claims of either side.
Shelling of the plant itself triggered its safety systems and forced the shutdown of one of its reactors while also damaging the power supply lines, officials from both sides said early Thursday.
Ukraine’s state nuclear agency blamed Russian forces for the shelling, while a local Russian-installed official said Ukrainian forces were responsible.
Moscow’s troops were also firing at the route being taken by the team of U.N. inspectors as they set out from the city of Zaporizhzhia — which is under Ukraine’s control — to the nearby plant — which has been controlled by Russian forces since the early days of the war, Oleksandr Starukh, Ukraine’s head of the Zaporizhzhia region, said in a post on Telegram.
Both sides also blamed each other for shelling of the nearby town of Enerhodar.
Top Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling of the town and the plant were part of an effort to interfere with the mission.
“They want to disrupt the visit of the IAEA mission. These are the actions of a terrorist state, which is afraid that the world will learn the truth,” the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Yermak, said in a Telegram post.
The Kremlin’s intent was “to blame it on Ukraine,” Zelenskyy’s adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, also said in a tweet.
“This is a demonstration of [Russia’s] real ‘interest’ in the inspection,” he added.