The IAEA warns of a “nuclear catastrophe” in anticipation of shelling at the Zaporozhye reactor

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The UN nuclear chief warned of a potential “nuclear catastrophe” following shelling from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, once again calling on Russia and Ukraine to allow expert missions access to the facility to help secure it.

The shelling of a nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye in south-eastern Ukraine indicates the potential “catastrophic consequences” of attacks on and around the facility, Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said.

“Military actions that threaten the safety of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant are completely unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs,” Grossi said in a statement.

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the attack after Friday’s shelling. The facility near the front line has been under Russian control since March, but is still operated by Ukrainians.

In his Friday evening speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pointed to the shelling of Zaporozhye as another reason why Russia should be considered a “state sponsor of terrorism,” which he repeatedly called for.

Zelenskiy also advocated sanctions against the Russian nuclear industry.

“It’s just a question of safety,” he said. “The one who poses a nuclear threat to other nations is clearly unable to safely use nuclear technology.”

In turn, the Russian defense ministry accused Ukraine of the attack, claiming that protection by forces backed by Russia prevented the plant from being seriously damaged. According to a defense ministry statement, the shelling damaged two power lines and a water pipe, leaving more than 10,000 inhabitants without water and electricity.

Russia originally seized the facility after one of its missiles set fire to the power plant complex, raising concerns over the safety of four Ukrainian nuclear facilities that have been going on for several months.

“Ukrainian personnel serving a facility under Russian occupation must be able to carry out their important duties without threats and pressures that endanger not only their safety, but also the safety of the facility itself,” Grossi said in a statement.

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) has backed Grossi’s calls to halt the attacks on the facility and send a mission there, condemning the shelling in Saturday’s statement.

“It is unreasonable for a civilian nuclear facility to be used as a military base or target for a military operation,” said organization president Steven Arndt and chief executive officer Craig Piercy.

According to Grossi, Friday’s shelling did not damage any of the six reactors in Zaporizhia and did not release radioactive material into the environment, but the plant suffered damage elsewhere.

He added that the IAEA mission to the nuclear power plant would allow inspectors to assess it and gather information independent of reports from Ukraine and Russia.

However, according to the British Defense Ministry, the situation around Zaporozhye is likely to become more, not less dangerous, as the toughest fighting moves towards the power plant.

The IAEA has been working for months on ensuring the safety of Ukrainian nuclear facilities. In April, Gross led a mission to the Chernobyl power plant – the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters in 1986 – following the withdrawal of Russian-backed forces in March.

In early June, he led an on-site inspection mission with experts who assessed his condition and conducted training in radiation monitoring equipment. A similar mission to Zaporozhye, Grossi said, is “crucial” to its security.

“But it will require cooperation, understanding and facilitation from both Ukraine and Russia,” he said, adding that UN Secretary General António Guterres backed the agency’s plan.

Grossi was in New York on Monday for the Tenth Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In his inaugural address, he discussed the “seven pillars” of IAEA nuclear safety, which include the physical integrity of facilities, reliable communication with regulators, and the ability of personnel to work safely.

These pillars, Grossi said in his statement, were breached in Zaporozhye – during Friday’s shelling and in the months following the Russian invasion.

“We can’t waste any more time,” he said. “In an effort to protect people in Ukraine and elsewhere from a potential nuclear accident, we must all put our differences aside and act now.”

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