UN wants more access to Ukraine nuclear plant amid sabotage warnings

International Atomic Energy Agency seeks access to rooftop of Zaporizhzhia reactors to check for presence of explosives.

The United Nations’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has called for increased access to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine as Moscow and Kyiv accused each other of planning acts of sabotage at what is Europe’s largest nuclear power facility.

The IAEA said on Wednesday that it was seeking additional access to the Zaporizhzhia plant to “confirm the absence of mines or explosives at the site”.

“With military tension and activities increasing in the region where this major nuclear power plant is located, our experts must be able to verify the facts on the ground,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in a statement on Wednesday.

Recent inspections at the site by IAEA staff had not found “any visible indications of mines or explosives”, but additional access “would help clarify the current situation at the site” at a time when “unconfirmed allegations and counter allegations” were circulating, Grossi said.

“In particular, access to the rooftops of reactor units 3 and 4 is essential, as well as access to parts of the turbine halls and some parts of the cooling system at the plant,” the IAEA chief said in the statement.

Ukraine and Russia accused each other Wednesday of planning to attack the Zaporizhzhia plant, though neither side provided evidence to support their claims of an imminent threat to the facility, which has been under Russian control since the beginning of March 2022, shortly after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Citing intelligence reports, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alleged on Tuesday night that Russian forces had placed “objects resembling explosives” on top of several of the plant’s power units to “simulate” an attack from the outside.

“Their detonation should not damage power units but may create a picture of shelling from Ukraine,” according to a statement from the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces.

‘Moscow is considering various scenarios’

On Wednesday evening, Zelenskyy once again accused Russia of planning to stage an incident at the nuclear plant similar to the destruction last month of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region.

“Now they have also mined this nuclear power plant. And this is a fact,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to university students and staff in Argentina.

“Why? Moscow is considering various scenarios, including those similar to the man-made disaster at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant … [that is], for cynical military purposes. But we should not even think about which scenario is the most likely. We should only think about how to prevent any disastrous scenario,” he said.

In Russia, authorities claimed Kyiv was also plotting an act of “sabotage” at Zaporizhzhia.

“The situation is quite tense because the threat of sabotage from the Kyiv regime is really high – sabotage that could have catastrophic consequences,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

“The Kyiv regime has repeatedly demonstrated its readiness not to rule anything out,” he said. Peskov said Russia was pursuing “all measures” to counter the alleged Ukrainian threat.

Renat Karchaa, an adviser to Russia’s state nuclear company Rosenergoatom, which controls the Zaporizhzhia plant, said there was “no basis” for Zelenskyy’s claims of a plot by Moscow to simulate an explosion at the facility.

“Why would we need explosives there? This is nonsense” aimed at “maintaining tension”, Karchaa said on Wednesday, according to the Interfax news agency.

Karchaa had alleged in televised remarks on Tuesday that Ukraine’s military was planning to strike the plant overnight with ammunition laced with nuclear waste, but no such attack occurred.

‘False flag’ operation

Regular power outages resulting from shelling around the Zaporizhzhia plant made it impossible to operate the site safely, and its six reactors have been shut down since September to minimise the threat of a disaster.

Over the last year, the IAEA has repeatedly expressed alarm over the possibility of a radiation catastrophe like the one at Chornobyl after a reactor exploded in 1986.

Ukraine has claimed in recent weeks that Moscow might try to cause a deliberate leak at the nuclear plant to derail Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive in the surrounding Zaporizhia region.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kyiv, said that Ukraine has warned that Russia may be planning “a so-called false flag” operation by setting off explosives on the roof of the Zaporizhzhia plant to make it appear as though Ukrainian forces had attacked the site. The Kremlin, on the other hand, has accused Kyiv of planning to strike the nuclear facility with long-range precision weapons.

And both sides have compared the situation at Zaporizhzhia with the destruction last month of the Nova Kakhovka dam, for which each blames the other.

“Moscow says the destruction of the dam shows what Kyiv is capable of,” McBride said.

“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says the failure of the international community to punish Russia for destroying the dam has emboldened it now to attack the nuclear plant,” he said.

Amid the heightened tensions at Zaporizhzhia, people living in the vicinity of the plant have been warned by Ukraine’s health ministry to be ready to evacuate in case of a major radiation leak, McBride added.

Last week, Ukrainian emergency workers held a drill to prepare for a potential release of radiation from the plant. In case of a nuclear disaster at the plant, approximately 300,000 people would be evacuated from the areas closest to the facility, according to the country’s emergency services.

Ukrainian officials have said the shut-down reactors are protected by thick concrete containment domes, and experts have said that the plant’s design allows it to withstand barrages.

Ukraine’s health ministry on Tuesday released guidelines in the event of an emergency and urged residents to pack emergency bags, containing supplies like face masks and food, wrapped in plastic.

“If authorities have officially announced a radiation emergency, stay indoors or get out as soon as possible,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Stay tuned for further announcements and follow the instructions.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies