KYIV: The head of Ukraine’s state-run nuclear energy firm said on Sunday there were signs that Russian forces might be preparing to leave the vast Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant which they seized in March soon after their invasion.

Such a move would be a major battlefield change in the partially-occupied southeastern Zaporizhzhia region where the front line has hardly shifted for months. Repeated shelling around the plant has spurred fears of a nuclear catastrophe.

“In recent weeks we are effectively receiving information that signs have appeared that they are possibly preparing to leave the (plant),” Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, said on national television. “Firstly, there are a very large number of reports in Russian media that it would be worth vacating the (plant) and maybe worth handing control (of it) to the (International Atomic Energy Agency — IAEA),” he said, referring to the United Nations nuclear watchdog. “One gets the impression they’re packing their bags and stealing everything they can.”

Russia and Ukraine, which was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chornobyl in 1986, have for months repeatedly accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia reactor complex, which is no longer generating energy.

Asked if it was too early to talk about Russian troops leaving the plant, Kotin said on television: “It’s too early. We don’t see this now, but they are preparing (to leave).” “All of the (Ukrainian) personnel are forbidden to pass checkpoints and travel to Ukrainian(-controlled) territory.” The IAEA chief met a Russian delegation in Ista­nbul on Nov 23 to discuss setting up a protection zone around the plant, Europe’s largest, to prevent a nuclear disaster. Zaporizhzhia used to provide about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2022

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