ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — A team of international inspectors arrived Wednesday in Zaporizhzhia ahead of its unprecedented mission to try to restore stability and avert a potential nuclear catastrophe at a nearby Russian-occupied power plant.
The visit comes as Ukrainian forces appeared to make some progress after launching a long-awaited counteroffensive to retake territory in the country's south that was seized by Russian forces early in the invasion.
During their visit to the plant, which has seen weeks of shelling that Russia and Ukraine have blamed on each other, the United Nations nuclear experts plan to assess damage and evaluate whether safety systems are still intact. They also intend to speak with Ukrainian workers operating the plant, some of whom have reported being tortured by Russian troops occupying the site.
“We are going to a war zone,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told reporters before departing the capital, Kyiv, at dawn.
Grossi said the inspectors would spend “several days” at the power plant, before reporting back to an increasingly alarmed international community.
Yet, even as the team's armored convoy arrived in Zaporizhzhia, it remained unclear how and when they would be able to safely reach the plant in nearby Enerhodar.
Advisers to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian forces were shelling the route the inspectors would take to the plant to force them to instead travel there through Russian-held territory, while Russia accused Ukraine’s forces of firing on the plant overnight. Ukrainian officials said it was actually Russian troops firing on the plant from a nearby town across the Dnieper River.
NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.
On arrival in Zaporizhzhia, Grossi said he was confident the mission could be carried out safely.
Elsewhere in southern Ukraine, the country’s apparent counteroffensive to try and take back Russian-occupied areas was making progress, according to Britain’s defense ministry.
“Ukrainian armored forces have continued to assault Russia’s Southern Grouping of Forces on several axes across the south of the country since Monday,” it said in an intelligence update Wednesday. "Ukrainian formations have pushed the front-line back some distance in places, exploiting relatively thinly held Russian defenses." the ministry added.
While Ukraine's potential gains could prove crucial in the overall direction of the war, in recent weeks the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe, with six reactors — has become a major flashpoint in the conflict.
Last week, a nearby fire disconnected the plant from Ukraine’s electricity grid for the first time in its history, forcing the plant to revert to backup power for the safety systems that prevent a nuclear meltdown.
Tariq Rauf, a former IAEA inspector now at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the IAEA mission includes experts on radiation safety, physical security of power plants and nonproliferation of nuclear material located at the site. He said inspectors were likely bringing cameras and radiation measuring devices to replace those damaged during the war.
“This is very unprecedented,” he said. “I would expect that it would take at least a few days, if not maybe up to a week because the site is quite large. If they have to go around the site, to look at damage from the shelling and so on, I think that would take some time.”
Amid the fighting and conflicting reports about the agreed-upon conditions for the IAEA visit, Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-installed governor of the part of Zaporizhzhia occupied by Moscow's troops, claimed the inspectors would only spend one day at the plant and downplayed prospects for the mission’s success.
“I think it will be more political engagement,” Balitsky said in comments carried by the Russian state-run news agency Interfax.
Zelenskyy, meeting Tuesday with the IAEA delegation in Kyiv, said it was crucial that Russia acquiesce to demands from the nuclear watchdog and the international community that the power plant be demilitarized and returned to Ukrainian control.
“Only this way, we can eliminate any risks regarding the atomic energy,” he said.
Underscoring the rising fears of a radiation catastrophe, workers from Ukraine’s State Emergency Service and State Police held nuclear disaster drills Tuesday that focused on how the civilian population would be evacuated in the event of a radiation leak.
Local authorities in Zaporizhzhia have also been doling out potassium iodine tablets to residents within a 31-mile radius of the plant.