DNIPRO, Ukraine (AP) - International Atomic Energy Agency Director Rafael Mariano Grossi crossed the front lines in Ukraine to visit Europe's largest nuclear power plant Wednesday and warned that it was easy to see evidence of intensifying fighting in the area, posing a threat to the safety of the facility.
In the face of increasing fighting, ways must urgently be found to avoid a potentially catastrophic nuclear accident at the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant, Grossi said.
"It is obvious that this area is perhaps facing a more dangerous phase," he said of the facility, which is located in a part of Ukraine that Russia partially occupies. "We must redouble our efforts to reach an agreement for the protection of the power plant."
Grossi has had trouble reaching an agreement with Russian and Ukrainian authorities to protect the plant, which has taken several hits during the war. The site has also suffered several cuts in external power supply, which is needed to cool its six reactors, all of which are shut down, forcing the plant to rely on emergency generators.
This was Grossi's second visit to the plant since the beginning of the war. For months he had been trying to negotiate that the entire area around the complex be protected, but he told a press conference during his visit that the concept "is evolving" to focus mainly on protecting the nuclear power plant.
Grossi said he was working on "realistic measures" and has narrowed their scope in the hope of reaching agreement on a plan that is acceptable to all parties.
"Initially, we were focusing on the possibility of establishing a well-determined zone around the power plant," he told reporters during his visit. "Now the concept is evolving. It is focusing more on protection as such and things to avoid, for example, in order to protect the facility, and not on the territorial aspects, which presents certain problems."
The IAEA, based in Vienna, Austria, has been rotating inspection teams at the plant since Grossi's first visit last September. The official told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his duty is to accelerate dialogue between Kiev and Moscow in order to safeguard the facility and avoid a catastrophic accident. He noted that an agreement is "close."
Grossi met on Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and said he was "most likely" to travel to Moscow in the coming days.
However, Zelenskyy said in a separate interview with the AP that he was not very optimistic about a deal. "I don't feel it's close," he pointed out.
From the Ukrainian city of Dnipro after his visit, Grossi said he saw clear signs of increased military activity in the area and assessed the damage to the facility after an artillery attack last November, which he described as "quite severe."
Buildings near two of the reactors were hit "deliberately or unintentionally... so this is very serious," he stressed, adding that his visit allowed him to confirm "the seriousness... of the situation and the need for us to get results as soon as possible."
He did not go into details about the security plan, but clarified that "it is very important not to use the plant as a military platform", since parking heavy military equipment at the site could turn it into a target.
Likewise, he commented that there should also be "no attacks.... And we saw that, at least until November, there have been attacks. So I hope there won't be another one. But the reality and the facts show that there have been."
Kremlin forces took control of the plant after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Zelenskyy opposes any proposal that would legitimize Russian control.
Disruptions in external power supply due to the fighting forced plant staff to resort to emergency diesel generators six times during the 13-month conflict. It is unknown when backup supplies might be needed again, Grossi told the AP.