As IAEA leaves Ukraine’s nuclear plant, the mayor of a nearby town has high hopes

KYIV, Ukraine — The mayor of the town closest to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant says he hopes the Russian forces now controlling the complex will move out, following an inspection by the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, which sits less than 2 miles from Europe’s largest power plant, says the occupying Russian forces have been using the plant as a fortress and a staging ground to shell local residents.

“I only hope that the international experts will be able to assess and take appropriate decisions in order to protect the whole world from the disaster,” he tells NPR in an interview from Zaporizhzhia City. Orlov had to leave Enerhodar weeks ago for his safety, a spokesperson says.

A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency got to the plant Thursday to assess the safety and security of the complex, which has been under Russian occupation since early March. The inspectors, welcomed by both Russia and Ukraine, made it from Kyiv in just under a day, despite long delays and intense shelling Thursday morning along the preapproved route.

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces are to blame for the attacks on the route. Orlov says he can tell because “around 2 seconds” pass between hearing a mortar shot and the resulting explosion.

“Therefore, we understand that … the distance of this weapon is somewhere around 1-2 kilometers from the place that was hit,” he tells NPR. “This [where the sounds are originating from] is occupied territory.”

Orlov notes that residents from Primernoye and Ivanivka, two villages in the Zaporizhzhia region, under Russian control, have reported shelling originating from their villages. He also says that he has seen shelling originate from the nuclear power plant; missiles that struck the cities of Nikopol and Marganec across the Dnipro River.

Meanwhile, Russia says it is the Ukrainians who are doing the shelling. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Moscow was working hard to facilitate the IAEA visit.

“We are doing everything to ensure that this station is safe, that it functions safely,” Lavrov said in Moscow on Thursday. “And for the mission there to carry out all of its plans.”

Nuclear experts around the world have warned that a nuclear catastrophe is imminent if the Russians aren’t maintaining the plant correctly and if shelling in the area does not stop.

Orlov calls the reduced crew of Ukrainian workers at the plant “heroes,” and says they are under immense physical and psychological pressure. Many of the plant’s employees are residents of his town — its prewar population a little over 53,000 — where Orlov says the shops and internet have stopped working and everyone lives in fear of the constant shelling, or the Russian troops and their armed allies walking around town.

“They rob people, steal cars, mobile phones,” he says. “Everyone who expresses a pro-Ukrainian position openly — or not openly — is being taken to basement and tortured.”

Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, Enerhoatom, says IAEA director Rafael Mariano Grossi and most of his delegation left the Zaporizhzhia plant by Thursday evening Ukrainian time. It says five representatives of the mission will stay behind until Saturday.

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