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UN watchdog warns of ‘grave hour’ at Ukraine’s nuclear power plant

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi addressed the United Nations Security Council via video link. He has described the situation at Zaporizhzhia as ‘completely out of control.’ (Photo by AP)

The UN nuclear watchdog has called for officials to visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant amid fresh escalation in the area and warnings of the “catastrophic consequences” of continued fighting near Europe’s largest atomic plant.

“This is a serious hour, a grave hour and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] must be allowed to conduct its mission to Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible,” the agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday night.

Grossi warned that parts of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that had been knocked out due to recent attacks risked an "unacceptable" potential radiation leak.

Ukraine’s state-run company operating the plant, Energoatom, said the area was struck five times on Thursday, including near the site where radioactive materials are stored.

Russia on Wednesday requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council concerning Ukraine’s continuous attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as both sides continue to blame each other for repeated shelling of the site. Earlier, TASS reported that Russia had requested Grossi's participation.

Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. Russian forces seized the plant soon after Moscow launched its ongoing military offensive in the ex-Soviet country on February 24. Both Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of targeting the facility.

On Monday, Kiev called for the establishment of a “demilitarized zone” around the nuclear power station in east Ukraine. The Kremlin, for its part, accused Ukrainian forces of firing on the plant, warning of potential “catastrophic consequences” for Europe.

Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo on Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the nuclear confrontation risk is back after decades, calling on the nuclear-armed countries “to commit to the principle of non-first use.”

“Any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing. I hope that those attacks will end, and at the same time I hope that the IAEA will be able to access the plant,” Guterres said after a visit to Hiroshima over the weekend, where he gave a speech to mark the 77th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack.

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