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UN atomic watchdog inspectors have found landmines at the site of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war after their full-scale invasion last year.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the mines were planted in a buffer zone between the internal and external perimeter barriers, at what is the biggest nuclear facility in Europe.
“Having such explosives on the site is inconsistent with the IAEA safety standards and nuclear security guidance and creates additional psychological pressure on plant staff,” Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director- general, said in a statement on Monday night.
But he added that the “detonation of these mines should not affect the site’s nuclear safety and security systems”.
Since last year Ukraine has accused Russia of militarising the plant by basing troops there and storing weaponry at the site. It is located in Energodar, a city in the southern regions of Ukraine, which Russia’s forces occupy along with the country’s far east.
Grossi said the IAEA had been aware of the previous placement of mines “outside the site perimeter and also at particular places inside”. He added the nuclear body’s permanent inspectors on the site “have been told that it is a military decision, and in an area controlled by military”.
The IAEA said its experts had carried out inspections and regular “walk-downs” across the nuclear plant “without seeing any heavy military equipment”. But they said they were “continuing to request access to the roofs of the [plant’s] reactors and their turbine halls, including units three and four which are of particular interest”.
Western officials, military analysts and scientists have long warned about the possibility of a nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia.
Safety concerns spiked last month after the nearby Kakhovka dam along the Dnipro river was blown up, flooding swaths of land and threatening to deprive the nuclear plant of water needed to cool nuclear fuel on site, even though electricity generation was halted last year.
“The IAEA experts are continuing to closely monitor the situation regarding the availability of water for cooling the ZNPP’s six reactors and other essential nuclear safety and security functions,” the IAEA statement said.
“Available water supply remains relatively stable . . . the site continues to have sufficient water for some months,” it added.
Lingering concerns about the nuclear power plant come a week into a Russian air strike campaign that has targeted Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in a bid to choke Ukrainian grain exports. Moscow last week withdrew from a UN-brokered agreement from last summer that created a maritime food shipment corridor to ease Russia’s Black Sea blockade of Ukrainian ports.
In a phone call with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded for additional air defence systems to protect his country’s ports, including the provincial capital Odesa, whose historic centre was this weekend heavily scarred by a Russian missile strike.
“Ukraine urgently needs to strengthen its air defence to protect its historical heritage and continue the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.
On Monday Russia launched drone strikes on Ukraine’s Reni port on the Danube, which forms a border with Romania, an EU country and member of the Nato military alliance.
Russia conducted fresh “kamikaze” drone strikes in the early hours of Tuesday targeting Kyiv and regions to the west, east and south of the capital. Officials said all those aimed at Kyiv were intercepted, but some infrastructure damage was reported in other regions.
EU agriculture ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss alternative routes for Ukrainian grain to reach world markets after Russia threatened to attack ships in the Black Sea, the main supply route.
Plans include increasing capacity to bring cereals out over land and river routes through the EU, said Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister, who is chairing the meeting.
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds and Henry Foy in Brussels.