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Deal to protect Ukrainian nuclear plant ‘close’

DNIPRO, UKRAINE (AP) – A deal to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant from a catastrophic accident due to fighting in Ukraine could be “close”, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Tuesday, but warned that intensified combat in the area has increased risks to the facility.

In an interview with The Associated Press a day before he was to cross the front lines for a second time to visit the plant, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said he felt it was his duty to ramp up talks aimed at safeguarding the facility. He met on Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and said he would “most probably” head to Russia in the coming days.

“There is an increased level of combat, active combat” in the area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Grossi said. “My teams there report daily about the attacks, the sound of heavy weaponry. This is practically constant.”

Grossi has long called for a protection zone to be set up around the plant, which is very near the front line of the war. But so far, an agreement has been elusive.

“It is a zone of extreme volatility. So the negotiations are, of course, affected by the ongoing military operations,” Grossi said. “I would not characterise the process for the last few months as one that has not led to any progress.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with United Nations Atomic Energy Chief Rafael Mariano Grossi during a visit to Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. PHOTO: AP

The nuclear agency head said he has maintained a professional dialogue with both Russian and Ukrainian officials as he seeks a deal “to ensure… that there is no radiological accident, major catastrophic accident, in Europe”.

“I think it’s close,” he said of the possibility of a deal. “Obviously, obviously, I need a political commitment, political decision. And in this case, what I want to stress is that what they would be agreeing is on the protection of the plant.

“They are not agreeing with each other. They are agreeing with the IAEA. They are agreeing with nuclear safety and security. This is a very important element which I believe should be taken into consideration.”

The negotiations are specific to preventing a nuclear disaster at the plant and not aimed at securing a broader cease-fire, Grossi stressed.

“What we are doing, the way we are presenting things is as a series of principles or commitments that the IAEA presents and everybody would be able to support,” he said.

“So in my opinion this should make an agreement possible, not impossible, not utopian, not something for which we should be waiting for months and months on end.”

The head of the nuclear agency said he sees “an increased level of danger” due to the fighting. “I think the principle here is to avoid an accident, and the possibility of having it is increasing. This is a matter of fact.”

The United Nations’ atomic energy watchdog, which is based in Vienna, Austria, has a rotating team permanently based at the plant. The power station’s six reactors are in shutdown and the plant has received the electricity it needs to prevent a reactor meltdown through one remaining functioning power line.

Plant personnel have had to switch to emergency diesel generators six times during the 13-month war to power essential cooling systems.

When backup power supplies might be needed again is “absolutely unpredictable”, Grossi said.

“It’s because of the shelling, it’s because of the drone, it’s because of an attack, it’s because of an offensive operation or a defensive operation.

“So it’s not something that you can really plan for,” he noted. “It is occurring, has been occurring. And if we base ourselves on what we have been seeing, it’s going to happen again.”

The IAEA head said he has discussed the situation at the highest levels with both sides and was still discussing “different scenarios that could lead” to the creation of a protection zone around the plant.

“This proposal is about preventing a nuclear accident. It is not to create any situation which may have a military advantage or disadvantage or a legitimisation of the situation,” he said.

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