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Ukraine and Russia trade blame over nuclear plant threat as U.N. inspectors assess the damage

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team braved intense shelling to reach the Zaporizhzhia power plant on Thursday.
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/ Source: Reuters

Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over each others’ actions around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Friday as a team of inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog tried to check the safety of the facility and avert a potential disaster.

Ukraine’s state nuclear company said the International Atomic Energy Agency mission had not been allowed to enter the plant’s crisis center, where Ukraine says Russian troops are stationed, and would struggle to make an impartial assessment.

The Kremlin said Ukraine was continuing to shell the plant, raising the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.

Members of the International Atomic Energy Delegation inspect missile damage at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine on Thursday.Yuri Kochetkov / EPA via Shutterstock

The site, 6 miles from Ukrainian positions across the Dnieper River, was captured by Russian forces soon after they invaded Ukraine in late February and has become the focus of international concern.

It has come under repeated shelling over the past month, with Kyiv and Moscow trading blame for the firing. The plant is still run by Ukrainian staff and Russia has rejected calls for it to withdraw its troops. One of the plant’s reactors was forced to shut down on Thursday due to shelling.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi and his team spent several hours at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Thursday and intended to return on Friday across the frontlines to assess damage.

Speaking after the initial visit, Grossi said the physical integrity of the plant had been violated several times and he was worried by the situation there.

Russia’s ambassador to international institutions in Vienna said two IAEA inspectors would stay at the Zaporizhzhia plant on a permanent basis, the state news agency RIA Novosti said Friday.

Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said it would be difficult for the IAEA team to make an impartial assessment due to Russian interference.

“The Russians did not allow the mission to enter the crisis center, where Russian military personnel are currently stationed, whom the IAEA representatives were not supposed to see,” Energoatom said in a statement.

“The (Russian) occupiers lie, distort the facts and evidence that testify to their shelling of the power plant, as well as the consequences of damage to the infrastructure,” it said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the mission could still have a role to play despite the difficulties met.

“Unfortunately we haven’t heard the main thing from the IAEA, which is the call for Russia to demilitarize the station,” Zelenskyy said in a video streamed to a forum in Italy.

In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu rejected assertions by Kyiv and the West that Russia had deployed heavy weapons at the plant. He accused Ukraine of “nuclear terrorism” by shelling.

Shoigu repeated Moscow’s insistence that Kyiv would carry the responsibility for any escalation at the site.

Russian servicemen guard the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during the visit by IAEA officials on Thursday. Yuri Kochetkov / EPA via Shutterstock

The plant sits on the south bank of a huge reservoir on the Dnieper River that divides Russian and Ukrainian forces in central southern Ukraine. Before the war, it supplied more than a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

Ukraine started an offensive this week to recapture territory in southern Ukraine, mainly further down the Dnieper in neighboring Kherson province.

Both sides have claimed battlefield successes, although details have been scarce so far, with Ukrainian officials releasing little information.

Ukraine’s southern command spokesperson, Natalia Humeniuk, said on Friday Ukrainian troops had destroyed ammunition depots and pontoon bridges to hamper movement of Russian reserves.

“Our successes are convincing and soon we will be able to disclose more information,” she said.

Moscow has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.

NBC News has not verified those claims.