U.N. Official Heads to Ukrainian Nuclear Plant as Safety Fears Grow

The United Nations’ chief nuclear energy official met on Monday with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to discuss what he describes as increasingly dire fears about a battle-scarred nuclear plant on the front line of the war, ahead of his first visit to the plant in almost seven months.

The official, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, met with Mr. Zelensky in the battered Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, about 35 miles northeast of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which invading Russian forces have held for more than a year.

The plant, on the Dnipro River, is the first in the world to be engulfed by a war zone, raising fears of a catastrophic release of radiation. Shelling and shooting have repeatedly damaged the plant and temporarily knocked out vital supporting equipment. And reports that Ukraine is planning a major counteroffensive to retake southern territory that includes the plant have heightened fears of a disastrous strike, whether accidental or intentional.

Mr. Grossi has issued a series of warnings about security at the Zaporizhzhia plant, denouncing international complacency and saying that one day luck will run out. “The nuclear safety and security dangers are all too obvious, as is the necessity to act now to prevent an accident with potential radiological consequences to the health and the environment for people in Ukraine and beyond,” he said in a statement this weekend.

Hours after their meeting, Mr. Zelensky said in a statement, “Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the Z.N.P.P. and adjacent territories, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure.”

For months the heaviest fighting has been to the east, in the Donbas region, where Russian offensives aimed at taking the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka have made slow progress, at very high cost in lives and destruction.

On Monday, the senior Ukrainian official in Avdiivka, Vitaliy Barabash, ordered the evacuation of public utility workers who restore basic services and help rescue civilians after missile and artillery strikes, underscoring the gravity of the situation there. About 2,000 civilians remain out of a prewar population of 30,000, and Mr. Barabash, head of the city’s military administration, barred other civilians, including journalists and aid workers, from entering the town.

“Avdiivka is becoming more and more like a site from post-apocalyptic movies,” he said in a video posted Monday on social media. Mr. Barabash wore a helmet and flak jacket in the video, which showed piles of rubble in the street, shattered apartment blocks and trees blackened by fire.

Since the start of the war 13 months ago, Russian forces have repeatedly tried to seize Avdiivka, which is near the Russian-held city of Donetsk. But they have redoubled their efforts to capture it in recent weeks, stepping up bombardment of the city center and outlying villages as part of a broader offensive in the eastern Donbas region.

In Bakhmut, about 34 miles northeast of Avdiivka, “the most intense phase” of the long-running battle for the city was underway, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, warned on Monday.

“The situation is consistently difficult,” General Syrsky said, according to the military media center. “The enemy is suffering significant losses in human resources, weapons and military equipment, but continues to conduct offensive actions.”

Bakhmut and Avdiivka are two points along a front line that stretches across the Donbas, whose capture President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has made his main objective. But Ukrainian leaders have made no secret that they hope to shift the focus of the war with a major offensive once they have fresh troops in place and new heavy weapons supplied by the West.

While pouring billions of dollars into arming Ukraine, its supporters, led by the United States, have increasingly isolated Russia, economically and diplomatically, while hardening the NATO alliance. That process continued on Monday, when Hungary’s Parliament approved NATO membership for Finland. Turkey — whose approval is the final obstacle remaining for Finland — is expected to consent within days.

Finland and Sweden, alarmed by the Russian invasion, dropped decades of official nonalignment and applied last year to join the alliance. Turkey and Hungary, which have the friendliest relations with Moscow among NATO members, have held up approval, and Sweden’s application remains stalled.

Germany delivered 18 promised Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said in a news conference on Monday, a highly anticipated delivery of advanced equipment from the West ahead of an expected spring offensive. Ukraine’s defense minister said British Challenger 2 tanks — 14 have been promised — had also begun to arrive. More tanks are expected from other NATO nations, including the United States.

On the battlefield, some Western officials and military analysts have predicted that the Ukrainians will launch an offensive soon aimed not at the Donbas, but at trying to recapture Russian-held parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions farther west, which could mean intensified fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

Nuclear experts particularly fear damage to the cooling system that keeps uranium-fueled reactor cores from melting down or to the electrical supply that keeps the cooling system running. That power has been cut several times, forcing the plant to rely on backup generators.

All six of the plant’s reactors have been taken out of service, but their radioactive reactor cores still must be kept continuously cooled.

The Russian state nuclear company, Rosatom, has taken over management of the plant, but many of its prewar Ukrainian staff members still work there. Ukrainian officials have accused the Russians of mistreating and intimidating the workers, and even intentionally worsening physical conditions at the plant.

In his nightly video address on Monday, Mr. Zelensky said Russia was using the plant “for radiation blackmail of the world.”

After months of lobbying and several false starts, Mr. Grossi persuaded Russian officials to allow his agency, an arm of the United Nations, to station inspectors there in September, the last time he went to the plant. He has said he plans to go there again this week, which would mean a precarious trip across the front line and through multiple military checkpoints.

Mr. Grossi’s proposal to create a demilitarized zone encompassing the plant has not borne fruit. Ukrainian officials say that Moscow has rejected the plan on the grounds that it would mean pulling its forces out of the facility, control of which has given them considerable leverage over Ukrainian energy production. Ukrainians say Russians fire at them from the plant grounds, knowing that the Ukrainians are reluctant to shoot back for fear of hitting crucial equipment — a charge that the Russians deny.

Ukrainians hold the west bank of the Dnipro, across the water from the plant, and Russians frequently shell the city of Nikopol and other targets on the western side of the river from near the plant, as well as Ukrainian-held territory to the north. The city of Zaporizhzhia has been bombarded many times.

The Ukrainian military’s general staff said on Monday that Russia had shelled 30 settlements in the Zaporizhzhia region over the previous 24 hours.

Mr. Zelensky’s unannounced visit to the city of Zaporizhzhia was his latest morale-boosting trip to positions close to the fighting. In a message posted on Telegram, Mr. Zelensky wrote that he was “honored to be here today, next to our military.”

Steven Erlanger and Carly Olson contributed reporting.

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