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The latest from Ukraine: U.N. nuclear inspectors visit Russian-occupied region

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Most of the U.N. nuclear inspectors sent this week to assess a Russian-occupied power plant in Ukraine have left, but a few remain behind. They will continue to monitor the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now from Dnieper, Ukraine. Elissa, thanks so much for being with us.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: You bet, Scott.

SIMON: Team was only able to visit the plant after months of negotiations, and it was not an easy journey, was it?

NADWORNY: That's right. They had the world on the edge of their seats. To get there, they had to pass through active fighting before they entered Russian-held territory. There were some long delays at checkpoints. There was heavy shelling on their way, but the team decided that the stakes were just too high for them to wait.

SIMON: And how did the visit go once they made it to the plant?

NADWORNY: So the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said his team was able to tour key zones of the plant. They talked with Ukrainian workers staffing the plant as well as people who live in the town where the plant is. He said they were able to see everything they requested to see. And remember, all of this is to avoid a meltdown, a radiation leak which could likely spread beyond just Ukraine. And in addition to human health risks, it would also be extremely harmful to nearby farmland.

SIMON: What did the inspectors learn?

NADWORNY: Grossi says they have three main concerns - the physical integrity of the plant, the power supply and the working conditions of the Ukrainians who are maintaining the plant. Physical conditions - OK, so it's important to remember that Russia took control of the plant back in March, but the most intense shelling actually started just in August. So it's a more recent trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL GROSSI: The physical integrity of the facility has been violated not once, but several times.

NADWORNY: Grossi said he himself saw impact holes, markings on the building from artillery shelling. And when it comes to the power supply, a nuclear power plant needs electricity to run safely - most importantly, to keep its reactors cool. That's what happened in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. The reactor lost power. Power supply has been a big issue in Zaporizhzhia. Nearby shelling on the day that the team visited caused an emergency shutdown at one of the plant's two operating reactors. It's back online now. Grossi said the power lines had been targeted. And this is a really pointed statement, he said. It was clear that those who have military aims know that's how to, quote, "hit it where it hurts." He said they don't have enough information yet to determine if the damage was caused deliberately or by accident. And then there's the working conditions. He said the plant is operating, but the conditions are not ideal. He praised the Ukrainian experts for continuing to work under such circumstances.

(SOOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSSI: They work very, very well. But of course, there is a tension. There is a latent tension there because of the obvious reasons, of the war.

SIMON: Elissa, what happens next?

NADWORNY: Six inspectors are going to stay at the plant. Four are going to be there until next week, continuing to work. And then there's going to be two inspectors that stay at the plant permanently to keep an eye on things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSSI: It is no longer a matter of A said these and B said the contrary. Now the IAEA is there. And this is, like I said, from night to day.

NADWORNY: Grossi said they're going to stay at the plant indefinitely. The team is going to brief the U.N. Security Council about their findings on Tuesday.

SIMON: Elissa Nadworny in Ukraine, thanks so much for being with us.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.