UN nuclear agency seeks more access to the plant that Kyiv and Moscow say is under threat

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Planet Labs PBC

This image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Ukraine on Wednesday, July 5, 2023. Ukraine and Russia are accusing each other of planning to attack one of the world's largest nuclear power plants. But neither side provided evidence to support their claims of an imminent threat to the facility in southeastern Ukraine that is occupied by Russian troops. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

TOKYO – The head of the United Nations nuclear agency said Friday he was pushing for access to the rooftops of reactors at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, where Ukrainian officials accused Russia of planting explosives.

Russia in turn accused Ukraine of planning to sabotage the plant. Neither side has provided any evidence for their claims of an imminent threat.

The plant was seized by Russia in March 2022, in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, raising fears of a nuclear accident. The Russians have cited security concerns in granting only limited access to officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Wrapping up a four-day visit to Japan, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told The Associated Press that the IAEA had recently gained access to more of the site, including the cooling pond and fuel storage areas.

The Ukrainians had said those areas were mined by the Russians, but the IAEA found they were not, Grossi said.

"It's like a conversation, and I'm pushing to get as much access as possible,” he said,

“I'm optimistic that we are going to be able to go up and see" the rooftops of the reactors.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alleged Tuesday, citing intelligence reports, that Russian troops placed “objects resembling explosives” atop several power units to “simulate” an attack as part of a false flag operation. The “foreign objects” were placed on the roof of the plant’s third and fourth power units, the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said.

In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov this week called the situation at the nuclear plant, which is Europe’s largest, “quite tense,” and accused Kyiv of planning an attack.

The U.N. atomic watchdog has repeatedly warned of the possibility of a radiation catastrophe like the one at Chernobyl, about 300 miles to the northwest, where a reactor exploded in 1986. The Zaporizhzhia plant has been shelled numerous times since the war began.

Regular power outages have made it impossible to operate the plant safely, and its six reactors have been shut down to minimize the threat of a disaster.

One expert said that even if explosive materials were found on the plant’s roofs, they were unlikely to cause extensive damage.

“These reactors are designed to withstand the type of implosions from a plane crash, and there is a belief that they would withstand shelling for example,” said Patricia Lewis, research director of conflict, science and transformation at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Grossi said the IAEA had modeled the possible environmental impact of an explosion or bombing at the plant. “You have enough nuclear material to create quite a disastrous situation in the worst scenario, but then there are different alternatives that could happen,” he said.

The IAEA has officials stationed at the plant, which is still run by its Ukrainian staff.

Grossi spoke Friday after a visit to the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where equipment has been installed for the planned release of treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

The government and TEPCO, the plant's operator, say the water must be removed to prevent any accidental leaks and make room for the plant’s decommissioning, and hope to start releasing the water this summer.

Japanese regulators on Friday granted TEPCO a permit to release the water. In its final assessment report, issued Tuesday, the IAEA endorsed the plan, saying any environmental and health impact would be negligible.

The plan is opposed by the Japanese fishing community, which worries about reputational damage, and groups in South Korea and China have raised concerns.

Grossi, however, said the controlled discharge of the water, treated to levels far stricter than international safety standards and further diluted by massive amounts of seawater, will be almost undetectable, and its impact won't cross borders.

A massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and contaminating their cooling water, which has leaked continuously. The water is collected, treated and stored in about 1,000 tanks, which will reach their capacity in early 2024.

Keeping the radioactive water at the plant is a “festering” problem, and leaving it unresolved would be a serious setback for Japan and for the region, Grossi said.

The release is crucial for nuclear safety, he said, and for regaining confidence and trust in Japan's economy.

Grossi was to leave Tokyo later Friday to head to South Korea, where he will provide an explanation of the safety of the Fukushima water release plan.