UN agency calls for safety zone around Ukraine nuclear plant

A Ukrainian soldier fires on the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Sat. Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The U.N. atomic watchdog agency urged Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday to establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid mounting fears the fighting could trigger a catastrophe in a country still scarred by the Chernobyl disaster.

“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned the U.N. Security Council, days after leading an inspection visit to the plant.

In a detailed report on its visit, the IAEA said shelling around the Europe’s largest nuclear power plant should stop immediately. “This requires agreement by all relevant parties to the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant, it said.

At the Security Council meeting, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres likewise demanded that Russian and Ukrainian forces commit to halting all military activity around the plant and agree on a “demilitarized perimeter.”

Guterres said this would include “a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it.”

Asked by reporters about establishing a demilitarized zone, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the proposal “is not serious.”

“The Ukrainians will immediately step in and ruin the whole thing. We’re defending, we’re protecting the station,” he said. “In fact, it is not militarized. There is no equipment at the station.”

Speaking to journalists later, Nebenizia said Russia wanted to see details of the proposals for demilitarized and protection zones.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country needs to look at the specifics of the protection-zone proposal and could support the measure if it envisions the demilitarization of the plant.

In his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskyy praised the IAEA report’s “clear references” to the presence of Russian troops and military equipment at the plant. He urged the agency to explicitly back Kyiv’s long-held position that Russian forces need to withdraw from the facility and its surroundings.

Shelling continued around the plant on Tuesday, a day after it was again knocked off Ukraine’s electrical grid and put in the precarious position of relying on its own power to run its safety systems.

Normally the plant relies on power from the outside to run the critical cooling systems that keep its reactors and its spent fuel from overheating. A loss of those systems could lead to a meltdown or other release of radiation.

“For radiation protection professionals, for the Ukrainian and even the Russian people, and those of central Europe, this is a very worrying time — and that’s an understatement,” said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Sussex in England.

Russia and Ukraine accused each other of shelling Enerhodar, the city where the plant is situated. The Ukrainians also charged that the Kremlin’s forces fired on a town across the Dnieper River from the power station.

The Ukrainian mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, reported a powerful blast in the city around midday. The explosion left the city of 53,000 cut off from its power and water supplies. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the blast.