KYIV Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency that safety at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station could not be guaranteed until Russian troops left the facility.
He met Mr Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Monday at the Dnipro hydroelectric power station, north-east of the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Russian forces took over the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe's largest, in March 2022 in the early weeks of the war, and the Kremlin has shown no inclination to relinquish control over it. Russian officials say they want to connect the plant to the Russian grid.
"Without an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and staff from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and adjacent areas, any initiatives on restoring nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure," the presidential website quoted Mr Zelensky as saying.
Russia and Ukraine routinely accuse each other of shelling the facility and running the risk of a major accident. Fighting around the plant and worries its cooling systems could lose power have raised fears of a nuclear disaster.
Mr Grossi said he and Mr Zelensky had a "rich exchange" on the protection of the plant and its staff. A team of monitors from the UN agency has been stationed at the plant since September 2022.
The IAEA chief has repeatedly called for a safety zone around Zaporizhzhia and is due to visit it again this week. Mr Grossi has tried to negotiate with both sides, but said in January that brokering a deal was getting harder.
Mr Zelensky told Mr Grossi that staff at the Zaporizhzhia plant were under constant pressure from Russian occupying forces, who he said were failing to uphold safety rules and interfering in technological processes, his office said. Kyiv has accused Moscow of using the plant as a shield for troops and military hardware.
Zaporizhzhia is one of four regions that Moscow claimed to annex in September 2022 after referendums denounced internationally as shams. Russia views the plant as its territory, which Ukraine denies.
Russia has accused Ukraine of putting the safety of the plant at risk. Moscow said in February that the construction of protective structures for key facilities at the Zaporizhzhia plant were nearing completion.
In his nightly video address, Mr Zelensky said his talks with Mr Grossi focused on energy security including that of Ukraine's nuclear power stations, which he said Russia was using "for radiation blackmail of the world".
"Holding a nuclear power station hostage for more than a year -- this is surely the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of European or worldwide nuclear power," Mr Zelensky said.
The Ukrainian President also met troops in south-eastern Ukraine during a tour of the Zaporizhzhia region, his third trip to the front line in less than a week.
He said he had held the first on-the-road meeting of his military command in the central city of Dnipro, after visiting Marhanets and Nikopol, site of front-line positions.
Early on Monday, Ukraine shut the eastern town of Avdiivka to non-military personnel as Kyiv tried to break the back of Russia's flagging winter offensive before a counter-assault of its own.
A Ukrainian general said Kyiv was planning its next move after Moscow appeared to shift focus from the small city of Bakhmut, which Russia has failed to capture after several months of the war's bloodiest fighting, to Avdiivka farther south.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in a Monday evening update that Russian forces were still trying to storm Bakhmut and had shelled the city and surrounding towns.
Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for more than four months despite a Russian winter offensive. The Ukrainian military aims to wear down Russian forces before mounting a counteroffensive.
Ukrainian ground forces commander, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said last week the counter-attack could come "very soon", visited front-line troops in the east and said his forces were still repelling Russian attacks on Bakhmut.
Defending the small city in the industrialised Donbas region was a military necessity, Gen Syrskyi said, praising Ukrainian resilience in "extremely difficult conditions".
Last week, the Ukrainian military warned that Avdiivka, a smaller town 90km farther south, could become a "second Bakhmut" as Russia turns its attention there.
Both towns have been reduced to rubble. Russian forces say they are fighting street by street.
Since Russia's invasion to "demilitarise" Ukraine became bogged down in the autumn, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have played up the prospect that the war could escalate to involve nuclear weapons. Last Saturday, he said he had struck a deal to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.
Kyiv and its Western allies reacted angrily to the plan. Ukraine called for a meeting of the UN Security Council, and Lithuania said it would call for new sanctions against Moscow and Minsk. European Union policy chief Josep Borrell urged Belarus not to host the weapons, and threatened more sanctions. REUTERS