UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Wednesday he met with the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers in an effort to establish a safety and security zone around a nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine that is Europe’s largest. The Zaporizhzhya power plant faces almost daily shelling and bombing, which causes fear of a nuclear accident.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that as a result of separate meetings with Ukrainian Dmytro Kuleb and Russian Sergey Lavrov, work on establishing and shaping the zone has already begun. He said he hopes to visit Kiev soon and “maybe later” go to Russia.
“Given the urgency of the situation and the seriousness of what’s happening on the ground, we have to move quickly,” Grossi said. Both nations, he said, share “the conviction that the establishment of the zone is necessary.”
“The very fact that two foreign ministers are sitting with me and listening to our ideas, I think that’s a good indicator that there is a very solid basis for this to happen,” he said.
Grossi said negotiating the safety zone is complex, and issues that need to be resolved include protecting the plant, how the zone will be implemented and how the agreement will be enforced.
The head of the IAEA said that the facility in Zaporozhye was shelled and attacked earlier on Wednesday, and that a “missile” hit a pipeline in a pool where spent nuclear fuel is cooled and stopped working. Technical experts were able to use other available capacities to continue pumping water into the pool, he said, noting that this is just one example of serious problems in a facility where the external power supply has been restored and interrupted several times.
In recent weeks, Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the shelling of the factory and its vicinity.
“No one would ever run a plant like this under normal circumstances with all these problems,” Grossi said. “We are playing with fire and we continue to play with fire.”
Russian troops seized the Zaporozhye plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar in early March, shortly after their February 24 invasion of Ukraine, but its nuclear operations remain managed by Ukrainian personnel.
Grossi led an IAEA team that visited Zaporizhzhia in late August and shortly thereafter proposed the establishment of a safe zone. He left two IAEA experts at the plant to monitor the situation and said the IAEA was in constant contact with them trying to ensure their working conditions were the best possible, but reiterated “we are in a situation that is not normal”.
Russia’s seizure of Zaporozhye renewed fears that the largest of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors could be damaged, sparking another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which occurred about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north from Kiev.
Grossi was also asked about the IAEA’s dealings with Iran and its latest report earlier this month that said it believed Iran had further increased its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to one short, technical step away from weapons-grade.
The nuclear agency has expressed growing concern over Tehran’s lack of engagement in an investigation into artificial uranium particles found at three undeclared sites in the country, which has become a sticking point in efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.
Grossi said Iran has seen many things, but “there are these three big question marks” that must be answered and “will not be wished away.”
“I hope that in the next few days I will be able to re-establish some contacts so that we can continue this process that has been going on for a long time,” he said.
Asked why he had not met with the Iranian leader, who is attending UN events this week, he replied: “Well, maybe you should ask them.”
Speaking at a meeting of General Assembly leaders, Iran’s president insisted on Wednesday that his country is serious about reviving the deal that is supposed to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb. But Ebrahim Raisi questioned whether Tehran could trust the US commitment to any eventual deal. The United States withdrew from the previous agreement in 2018 under President Donald Trump.
Edith M. Lederer is the Associated Press’ chief UN correspondent and has covered international affairs for more than half a century. For more AP coverage of the UN General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly