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U.N. inspectors arrive at Russian-occupied nuclear plant after delay due to fresh shelling

IAEA visits nuke plant on Ukraine front line
International monitors inspect nuclear power plant on front line of war in Ukraine 02:01

Kyiv — 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, and the IAEA itself later confirmed that the inspectors were at the facility. 

As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, the inspectors, led by IAEA director Rafael Grossi, are on one of the most important, most urgent assignments the organization has ever undertaken. Their mission is to prevent a nuclear accident, and the assignment is a dangerous one.

"So, wish us luck," said Grossi as his team set off in a convoy of about 20 vehicles for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is the largest in Europe. "There has been increased military activity, including this morning, until very recently, a few minutes ago…. Accepting that the risks are very, very high. Still, myself and the team, we believe that we can proceed with this. We have a very important mission to accomplish."

Ukraine gains ground as investigators assess damage to Europe's largest nuclear power plant 03:21

The facility and surrounding areas continue to come under shelling, with both sides trading blame. On Thursday, one of only two operational reactors at the plant was shut down due to the ongoing fighting.

Earlier, a spokesperson for Energoatom told Reuters that the IAEA team was held up at a Ukrainian forces checkpoint about 12 miles from the front line amid reports of fresh shelling. Reuters quoted the spokesperson as saying the convoy waited at the checkpoint for the situation around the plant to become safe before resuming its journey after several hours.

Ukraine accused Russia on Wednesday of shelling Energodar, the town where the plant is located, yet again, even as the IAEA team headed for the region from Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv.

"It's enough to blow radioactive nuclear waste," warned local resident Anatoliy Skaletskiy, "and it won't be pretty for anyone."

Ukrainian energy minister says "we were not far" from a nuclear disaster 02:32

The team of inspectors had to cross from the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia into Russian occupied territory to get to the nuclear power plant, about a two-hour drive away on the bank of the Dnieper River in Energodar.

Patta said fears of a nuclear disaster are so high that Ukrainian officials hold regular emergency drills, to prepare for the worst.

Russia Ukraine War IAEA
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks to media as he and his team prepare to visit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, September 1, 2022. Andriy Andriyenko/AP

Grossi's team has said it needed at least until the weekend to evaluate security and damage at the plant, but locally-installed Russian authorities said just before the visit that the IAEA may be given just one day to finish the investigation. Later Thursday, Energoatom said in a statement that Grossi had departed but that five IAEA inspectors would remain at the compound, likely until Saturday.

Grossi has called for at least a small team of IAEA inspectors to maintain a permanent presence at the Zaporizhzhia plant. 

Russia hasn't ruled that out, but there's been no indication that Moscow will accept demands by Ukraine, the U.N. and the U.S. to hand control of the facility back to Ukraine and allow it to become a demilitarized zone.

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