UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Wednesday that he met the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia in a bid to create a safety and security zone around one of Europe’s largest nuclear power plants in southeastern Ukraine. The Zaporozhye power plant faces shelling and bombing almost daily, raising fears of a nuclear accident.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the work to build and shape the region has begun thanks to separate meetings with Ukraine’s Dmitro Kuleba and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov. He said he hoped to visit Kyiv as soon as possible and go to Russia “maybe later”.
“Given the urgency of the situation and the seriousness of what is happening in the field, we must act quickly,” Grossi said. Both countries, he said, “are convinced that the establishment of the region is essential”.
“The fact that these two foreign ministers sat down with me to hear our thoughts, I think it’s a good indicator that this is happening on a very solid footing,” he said.
Negotiations for the safe zone are complex, Grossi said, with issues that need to be addressed including protecting the factory, how the safe zone will be enforced and how the agreement will be enforced.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was shelled and attacked early on Wednesday when a “projectile” hit a pipe cooling a spent nuclear fuel pool and the plant stopped working. He said technologists were able to continue pumping water into the pool using other available capacity, stressing that this was just one example of a serious problem at the facility, where external power has also been restored and interrupted repeatedly.
Over the past few weeks, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling at and near the factory.
“No one would run a plant like this under normal conditions and have all these problems,” Grossi said. “We are playing with fire and continue to play with fire.”
Russian forces seized the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in the southeastern city of Erner Khodar in early March, shortly after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, but its nuclear operations continued to be carried out by its Ukrainian staff.
Grossi led an IAEA team that visited Zaporozhye in late August, shortly after proposing the establishment of the safe zone. He kept two IAEA experts at the plant to monitor the situation and said the IAEA has been in constant contact with them to ensure their working conditions are as good as possible, but again stressed that “we are in an abnormal situation”.
The Russian occupation of Zaporozhye has reignited fears that the largest of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors could be destroyed, triggering another emergency, such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, It occurred about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of Kyiv.
Grossi was also asked about the IAEA’s deal with Iran and its latest report earlier this month, which said it believed Iran had further increased its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to levels just one step away from weapons-grade technology. .
The nuclear agency has expressed growing concern over Tehran’s lack of participation in an investigation into man-made uranium particles found at three undeclared sites in the country, which has become a sticking point in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers .
Grossi said Iran has observed many things, but “these three big question marks” must be answered and “will not be removed by hope.”
“I hope to be able to re-establish some connections over the next few days so that we can continue this process that has been hanging around for a long time,” he said.
When asked why he didn’t meet with Iranian leaders at a UN event this week, he replied: “Well, maybe you should ask them.”
Speaking at a meeting of General Assembly leaders on Wednesday, Iran’s president insisted that his country is seriously considering reviving a deal aimed at preventing it from acquiring a nuclear bomb. But Ibrahim Raisi questioned whether Tehran could trust the U.S. commitment to any final deal. The United States withdrew from the previous agreement in 2018 under President Donald Trump.
Edith M. Lederer is the Associated Press United Nations chief correspondent who 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