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At Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, officials try to prevent a meltdown

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a tense few days at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Russian forces occupy the plant. Both sides blame the other for attacks that could have led to a meltdown. International energy officials have been trying to visit the plant for weeks to assess the situation, and this week's events only lend more urgency to that effort. NPR's Julian Hayda reports from Kyiv.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Russia has occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant since March. This is the very first time that a nuclear facility built for peacetime power generation has ended up in a war zone, analysts say.

HRYHORIY PLACHKOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "Nuclear power plants aren't built to survive military activity, either at the plant itself or anywhere near it," says Hryhoriy Plachkov, the former head of Ukraine's nuclear regulatory agency. That's because a nuclear plant needs to draw power from the grid to avoid the possibility of a meltdown. Any fighting near the plant is a problem. Russian media reports that Ukrainians cut vital power line to the Zaporizhzhia plant. The Ukrainian side says wildfires that started in an ash pit knocked out the last functioning line. Even though Russia occupies the plant, they depend on Ukrainian expert workers to operate the facility. Russia says that the workers restored the power lines late Friday. Ukraine's president thanked the Ukrainian staff during his Friday evening address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "To our atomic energy workers, you are awesome. You're the best. You're strong. Your professionalism is saving all of Ukraine and Europe from the results of Russian terrorism," said Zelenskyy. The incident has heightened calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the plant. On Friday, Ukraine's top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny, told his American counterpart, General Mark Milley, that the biggest challenge is countering Russian propaganda about the nuclear site. Zelenskyy says that returning the plant to peaceful operation will provide a clearer view of what's happening on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

HAYDA: "It's so important for the IAEA to visit the nuclear plant as soon as possible," Zelenskyy said, "to return it to Ukrainian control, for the Russians to demilitarize the area." Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to allow international inspectors to visit the plant. But so far, Russian officials have said demilitarization is off the table. Officials in Ukraine's energy ministry are hopeful inspectors will visit the plant next week, a timeline the Russians haven't agreed to yet. Even though the plant's safety systems worked this week, the IAEA still said the situation there is critical.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda