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IAEA Chief: Attacks on Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant 'Playing With Fire'

FILE - Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi speaks to reporters after his return from Ukraine where he and his team visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, at Vienna airport, in Schwechat, Austria, Sept. 2, 2022.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Tuesday that the continued attacks on Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are "unacceptable," and he urged a demilitarized area in and around the facility.

"We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place," Rafael Mariano Grossi warned during a video briefing to the U.N. Security Council. "This is why in our report we are proposing the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone limited to the perimeter and the plant itself."

He said the IAEA is ready to start immediate consultations with the parties with concrete steps for setting up such a zone.

The IAEA chief issued a report earlier Tuesday following the mission he led last week to the power station. In it, he and his team describe extensive damage at the plant, but they did not assign blame. Russia, whose forces have controlled the facility since early March, and Ukraine, whose engineers operate the plant, have each accused the other of shelling the facility.

The IAEA inspectors found Russian troops and equipment inside, including military vehicles parked near turbines. They also found the situation of staff concerning, as they are working "under constant high stress and pressure" that they said could lead to human error.

'Catastrophe' feared

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said "all steps must be taken to avoid" damaging the power plant, telling the council it "could spell catastrophe" for the region and beyond.

"All efforts to reestablish the plant as purely civilian infrastructure are vital," he said.

The secretary-general urged Ukrainian and Russian forces to commit to not engage in any military activity in or around the nuclear plant and then secure a demilitarized perimeter.

"Specifically, that would include a commitment by Russian forces to withdraw all military personnel and equipment from that perimeter and a commitment by Ukrainian forces not to move into it," Guterres said.

Ukraine's envoy said his government has "never resorted" to military action around the plant, as it would endanger its own citizens and millions in neighboring countries.

"The only way to ultimately remove the nuclear threat stemming from the illegal Russian presence is withdrawal of the Russian weaponry and troops and the return of the station to the legitimate full control of Ukraine," Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said of the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video message Tuesday said that Kyiv would have to study the IAEA proposal to understand what "protection" of the plant would mean.

Russia's envoy blamed Ukraine for repeatedly shelling the site, including when the IAEA team was on its way there. Vassily Nebenzia did not comment on the IAEA proposal for a demilitarized perimeter.

Washington's envoy dismissed the Russian accusations as "a song and dance" to avoid acknowledging its responsibility for the situation, which it created through its invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia has no right to expose the world to unnecessary risk and the possibility of nuclear catastrophe," Deputy U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis said.

Disconnected from grid

On Monday, Ukraine's state-run nuclear company Energoatom said the last working transmission line from the Zaporizhzhia plant had been disconnected from the electricity grid because of Russian shelling.

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko said on Facebook that Energoatom was not able to make repairs while fighting raged around the facility.

The IAEA said Ukraine informed the agency the backup power line itself was not damaged and that Ukrainian experts plan to reconnect power in the coming days.

In its report, the IAEA said Ukraine's three other nuclear power plants — Khmelnytskyy, Rivne and South Ukraine — "have continued operating safely and securely since the beginning of the conflict" on February 24, despite difficult circumstances.

VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.