UN inspectors arrive at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Now what?

Source: Hot Air

UN nuclear inspectors have managed to make it to the city of Zaporizhzhia, under fire from both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. They want to assess the situation at the largest nuclear-power plant in Europe, which the Russians have used as a shield for their artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions. Now they’ve managed to make it to the city, however, they still have to get access to the nuclear plant. Will the Russians let them enter?

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Maybe not:

A convoy of inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency arrived Thursday at a huge nuclear plant on the front lines of the war in Ukraine, but the Russian forces who control the sprawling compound have threatened to restrict the team’s access, and ongoing fighting in the area threw up an early hurdle.

Russian news agency Interfax first reported the inspectors’ arrival at about 2 p.m. local time (7 a.m. Eastern), and a reporter for the Reuters news agency then said they had seen the team arriving at the plant. Ukraine’s atomic energy plant operator, Energoatom, then confirmed that the inspectors were at the facility.

And maybe they won’t want to be there for now, anyway:

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was forced to deploy emergency backup responses after shelling struck the facility on Thursday morning, Ukraine’s nuclear power company said, just as U.N. nuclear experts set off toward the plant.

Mortar shells hit the facility in southern Ukraine at about 5 a.m., damaging equipment and triggering the emergency responses, the company, Energoatom, said in a statement.

It was the second time in 10 days that combat near the plant had damaged equipment and triggered the emergency use of diesel generators, the statement noted. The Ukrainian military accused Russian forces of carrying out attacks to prevent the nuclear monitors from visiting.

Whatever else one thinks of the inspection plan, the inspectors themselves have guts to spare. This is an all-out war, not just some border clash, and atrocities abound — not the least of which may eventually involve the Zaporizhzhia plant itself. The UN negotiated the route taken by the inspectors with both sides, but the war followed them anyway — and Ukraine accused the Russians of ensuring it:

Ukrainian local authorities reported attacks in Enerhodar, a town located near the Zaporizhzhia plant, where most of the facility’s staff live.

“Russians are shelling the pre-agreed route of the IAEA mission from Zaporizhzhia to the ZNPP. The U.N. team cannot continue the movement due to security reasons,” Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said on Telegram earlier on Thursday morning.

The question remains, however, what the UN inspectors can accomplish with this tour under the control of the Russian military. They want to set up permanent observers in the plant, but the Russians are balking at that:

The exact parameters of the IAEA inspection remain undefined. According to Grossi, the mission “seeks to prevent a nuclear accident” and will assess the safety and security of the plant, as well as speak to staff. The IAEA will also push for a “continued presence” at the plant, he said Thursday. However, Russian officials have said his team would probably get only one day to inspect the facility. The trip aims to remove the risk of a nuclear disaster like the one that occurred in Chernobyl in 1986.

The director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, is visiting Ukraine and has cautioned both sides “to stop playing with fire” regarding the Zaporizhzhia plant. He said it would be almost “impossible” to provide humanitarian assistance to the region in the event of a “nuclear leak.”

To some extent, the value in this visit may be mainly that it succeeded at all. The UN team basically forced the Russians into it, and it refused to be daunted by the stepped-up attacks regardless of which side initiated it. But after that, it’s difficult to see what impact this will have on nuclear safety or the war. The Russians are not going to give up its nuclear artillery shield, nor its ambitions to shift Zaporizhzhia’s power generation to Russia. They are in this for blood, as their incredibly stupid assault on and over Chernobyl proved.

Furthermore, that could work for weeks, even if the Russian western flank gets turned in Kherson. That would put the Russian position in Crimea at risk first, but as Russians fall back from that line (if they fall back), they’ll be falling back towards Zaporizhzhia and its position on the eastern side of the Dnieper. That will make the Russians more entrenched and difficult to dislodge without a frontal attack on Zaporizhzhia soon, and that would risk punching a hole in the center of the Russian lines. Ergo, the Russians aren’t going to give up that position, not even for a humanitarian demilitarization of the reactor facility. They can’t afford to do that, not with Ukraine using hyper-accurate HIMARS artillery on their positions.

The inspectors deserve all praise for making it to the facility, and hopefully they can make it back safely and deliver a full report on what they see. But until Russia withdraws or is forced to retreat from the power plant, there’s not much that inspections can do to protect Europe from the consequences of Russia’s seizure and insistence on making it a battleground.