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Nuclear inspectors arrive at Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

International inspectors are in Ukraine preparing to visit a nuclear power plant at risk of disaster.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. The Zaporizhzhia plant has been under Russian occupation since March. And in recent weeks, it's been a cause for grave concern among nuclear watchdogs because there's been shelling in the area along with power cuts.

FADEL: Joining us to discuss this inspection is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Hi.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So let's just talk quickly about conditions at the plant. What do we know?

BRUMFIEL: Well, things are looking pretty dicey at the moment. A satellite image Monday from the company Maxar showed Russian armored vehicles parked at the nuclear reactors. There were holes in the roof of an auxiliary building, presumably from recent shelling. And wildfires are burning nearby. So all in all, this is really not the way you want a nuclear power plant to look.

FADEL: No. OK. And into all this are heading these inspectors. Who are they?

BRUMFIEL: So this is a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency. They're based out of Vienna. And they traveled to nuclear facilities all over the world. They've been to some pretty dicey places like Iran and North Korea. But Zaporizhzhia is really something different. Not only do you have this huge plant, Europe's largest, but Russian and Ukrainian troops are actively fighting around it. I spoke to Lars van Dassen, the executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security. He says there's never been a mission like this one.

LARS VAN DASSEN: This is an environment that I cannot imagine that the IAEA has ever been in before, coming in between two warring parties.

FADEL: So in an active war zone, coming into this plant where two sides are fighting all around it, what can the inspectors actually do?

BRUMFIEL: Well, a former inspector named Shirley Johnson told me they actually should be able to figure out quite a bit about how the big reactors are doing.

SHIRLEY JOHNSON: Just by going to the control room, they're going to be able to look at pressures and flows and coolants and really get a good picture of how the facilities are working.

BRUMFIEL: And they can also do things like check to make sure the backup generators and safety systems are running properly. But there's something much more important here, and that's the people working at the plant. A skeleton crew of Ukrainians have been running it. And they've reportedly been doing so while being harassed by Russian troops. Johnson says it's really important to find out how they're doing. And that's going to be a tough job for inspectors.

JOHNSON: It kind of depends on whether the Ukrainian operators are going to be able to speak truthfully and openly.

BRUMFIEL: But it's really important because the Ukrainian workers are ultimately the ones keeping this plant running safely.

FADEL: Yeah. So Geoff, assuming everything goes smoothly, the IAEA is going to spend a few days going through the plant, evaluating everything. But then what after that?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they'll head back to their base in Vienna and tell the world what they saw. And that's actually pretty important because all we have are these satellite images and tiny fragments of information from the plant right now. Beyond that, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said this morning he hopes they can establish a permanent presence at the plant. And that could be a foot in the door for some bigger agreement about security, which all the experts I talked to say is really badly needed because safety at the plant is getting worse.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.