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UN atomic watchdog chief pursues Ukraine nuclear plant deal

DNIPRO, Ukraine -- The head of the U.N.’s atomic energy watchdog returned Wednesday to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, reportedly saying he is working on a plan to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power facility “more locally” amid the war in the surrounding area.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi crossed the war’s front lines for a second time to reach the plant, which is located in a partially Russia-occupied part of Ukraine where combat has intensified.

The IAEA, which is based in Vienna, Austria, has a rotating team permanently based at the plant. Grossi told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday he feels it is his duty to ramp up talks between Kyiv and Moscow aimed at safeguarding the facility and avoiding a a catastrophic accident. He said a deal was “close.”

Grossi met Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and said he would “most probably” head to Moscow in the coming days.

However, Zelenskyy said in a separate interview with the AP that he was less optimistic a deal was near. “I don’t feel it today,” he said.

Grossi has long called for a protection zone around the plant but a deal has been elusive. Ukraine insists all Russian forces must leave the facility. Grossi said Wednesday he was working on “realistic measures” he believed would be acceptable to both sides, according to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.

“There have been and there are various ideas and concepts we’re working on,” Grossi said, according to RIA Novosti. “It’s a work in progress. We’re developing a concept to defend the plant more locally.”

The Kremlin’s forces took over the six-reactor plant after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and Zelenskyy opposes any proposal that would legitimize Russia’s control over the facility.

Grossi repeatedly has urged Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow a protection zone around the plant, which is very near the front line of the war.

The negotiations are specific to preventing a nuclear disaster at the plant and not aimed at securing a broader cease-fire, Grossi told the AP.

The power station’s reactors are shut down and the plant has received the electricity it needs to run the cooling systems needed to prevent a reactor meltdown through one remaining functioning power line.

Interruptions to the outside electricity supply due to the fighting required plant personnel to switch to emergency diesel generators six times during the 13-month war. When backup power supplies might be needed again is unpredictable, according to Grossi. ___

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