Russia and Ukraine accused each other of trying to sabotage the mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the plant in southern central Ukraine, which is controlled by Russian forces but operated by Ukrainian staff.
Conditions at the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, have been unravelling for weeks, with Moscow and Kyiv regularly trading blame for shelling in the vicinity and fuelling fears of a Chornobyl-style radiation disaster.
A Reuters reporter saw the IAEA team arrive in a large convoy with a heavy presence of Russian soldiers nearby. A Ukrainian source with knowledge of the situation told Reuters the mission “may turn out to be shorter than was planned.”
Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said Russian shelling had forced the shutdown of one of only two operating reactors at the site, while Moscow said it had thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to seize the plant.
A Reuters reporter in the nearby Russian-controlled town of Enerhodar said a residential building was struck by shelling, forcing people to take cover in a basement. It was not possible to establish who had fired.
The Russian-installed governor of Zaporizhzhia district, Yevgeny Balitsky, said at least three people had been killed and five wounded in what he said was Ukrainian shelling of Enerhodar that had also destroyed three kindergartens and the House of Culture. Power to the town had been cut in the morning, he said.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was doing everything to ensure that the plant could operate safely, and for the IAEA inspectors to be able to complete their tasks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also stressed Moscow’s willingness to cooperate with the IAEA mission.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters early on Thursday in the city of Zaporizhzhia, 55 km from the plant, he was aware of “increased military activity in the area” but would press ahead with the plan to visit the facility and meet staff.
“Having come so far, we are not stopping,” said Grossi, who is heading the mission.
The IAEA inspectors, wearing body armour and travelling in white, armoured land cruisers with UN markings on their sides, drove out of the city escorted by the police and were held at the first check point outside the city.
Oleksandr Starukh, the head of the Zaporizhzhia region, said Russian troops had shelled the route of the IAEA mission planned to use to reach the power station.
Russia accused Ukrainian forces of trying to seize the plant and also of shelling both the meeting point of the IAEA delegation and the nuclear plant itself.
Russia’s defence ministry said up to 60 Ukrainian troops had crossed the Dnipro river, which divides territory held by the two sides, in boats at 6:00 a.m. local time in what it said was a “provocation” aimed at disrupting the IAEA visit.
The ministry said “measures had been taken” to destroy the opposing troops, including use of military aviation.
A local Russian-installed official, Vladimir Rogov, later said “around 40” of the 60 Ukrainian troops had been killed. Russian troops also captured three Ukrainian servicemen during the assault on the plant, he added.
Ukrainian officials have welcomed the IAEA visit, expressing hope that it will lead to the demilitarisation of the plant. They say Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns, knowing it will be hard for Kyiv’s forces to return fire.
They have also accused Russian forces of shelling the plant, which Russian officials deny.
Reuters journalists who followed the IAEA convoy before being ordered to turn back due to the dangerous conditions said that while they were in the city of Zaporizhzhia during the night, they had seen flashes of explosions in the sky.
They could not verify who was responsible.
Russian-installed officials have suggested that the team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog would have only a day to inspect the plant, while the mission is preparing for longer.
“If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it’s going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days,” Grossi said.
Both sides have claimed battlefield successes amid a new Ukrainian push to recapture territory in the south.
“It is a very slow process, because we value people,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, referring to the Ukrainian offensive.
Moscow has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s southern military command said on Thursday it would not immediately name settlements in the south it had recaptured to avoid prompting Russian strikes on them.
It also said its counter-offensive was not affecting a Black Sea corridor created to allow for exports of Ukrainian grain.
Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine close to the Black Sea coast soon after launching its invasion on Feb. 24, including in the Kherson region, north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
In eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, towns north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, Kyiv’s military general staff said.
Pro-Russian troops have focused on Bakhmut in their push to extend control over the Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland in its east, the general staff added on Wednesday.
Russian-backed separatists said on Thursday 13 emergency service personnel were killed and nine wounded after coming under Ukrainian artillery fire in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the report.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities.
Ukraine and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked war of aggression that has caused millions to flee, killed thousands and turned cities into rubble.