The US government has urged a complete shutdown of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as fighting intensifies in the area and international experts plan an inspection visit.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby reiterated calls to create a demilitarised zone around the facility, which was occupied by Russian troops in the early weeks of the six-month-old war and has experienced close hits by rockets or artillery shells.
"As we've said many times, a nuclear power plant is not the appropriate location for combat operations," Mr Kirby told reporters.
He said the risks of keeping the plant going grew last week when fires in the area forced the shutdown of a diesel-fuelled electric plant that provides backup power to the Zaporizhzhia plant, potentially threatening nuclear reactor operations.
"We continue to believe that a controlled shutdown of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactors would be the safest and least risky option in the near term," Mr Kirby said.
He also offered strong support for the looming visit to Zaporizhzhia by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as he warned of a potential nuclear disaster at the plant due to the war.
"Russia should ensure safe, unfettered access for these independent inspectors," Mr Kirby said.
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UN to visit plant for inspection
The chief of the UN's nuclear watchdog earlier said a team would be heading to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, as Russia and Ukraine traded accusations of shelling in its vicinity, fuelling fears of a radiation disaster.
Captured by Russian troops in March but run by Ukrainian staff, Zaporizhzhia has been a hotspot in a conflict that has settled into a war of attrition fought mainly in Ukraine's east and south six months after Russia launched its invasion.
Earlier, the head of the IAEA said he would lead a team of inspectors this week to the Zaporizhzhia plant, on the Dnipro river in southern central Ukraine, without specifying the expected day of their arrival.
"We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine's and Europe's biggest nuclear facility," Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a post on Twitter.
The IAEA tweeted separately that the mission would assess physical damage, evaluate the conditions in which staff are working at the plant and "determine functionality of safety and security systems".
It would also "perform urgent safeguards activities", a reference to keeping track of nuclear material.
This week, DG @rafaelmgrossi leads the IAEA Support & Assistance Mission to #Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) to:— IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency (@iaeaorg) August 29, 2022
🔹Assess physical damage
🔹Determine functionality of safety & security systems
🔹Evaluate staff conditions
🔹Perform urgent safeguards activities
The US, United Nations and Ukraine have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the nuclear complex, Europe's largest, to ensure it is not a target.
But the Kremlin again ruled out vacating the site.
The two sides have for days exchanged accusations of courting disaster with their attacks.
With fears mounting of a nuclear accident in a country still haunted by the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, Zaporizhzhia authorities are handing out iodine tablets and teaching residents how to use them in case of a radiation leak.
Earlier today, Russian-installed officials said a Ukrainian missile strike had punched a hole in the roof of a fuel depot at the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Russia's defence ministry said its forces had shot down a Ukrainian drone that was trying to attack the nuclear power station, Russian news agencies reported.
It said there was no serious damage and radiation levels were normal.
Reuters could not independently verify either report.
The Kremlin said the IAEA mission was "necessary" and urged the international community to pressure Ukraine to reduce military tensions at the plant.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the IAEA mission must carry out its work in a politically neutral manner.
"They must be objective," she told Rossiya 24 television channel.
Russian forces fired at Enerhodar, the Dnipro riverside town where the plant is located, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff said late last night on his Telegram channel alongside a video of firefighters dousing burning cars.
"They provoke and try to blackmail the world," Andriy Yermak said.
Liliia Vaulina, 22, was among a growing number of refugees from Enerhodar arriving in the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia, some 50km upriver from the plant, and said she hoped the IAEA mission would lead to a de-militarisation of its area.
"I think that they will stop the bombing," she told Reuters.
Two of the plant's reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.
'Answer for attacks'
In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russian forces shelled military and civilian infrastructure near Bakhmut, Shumy, Yakovlivka, Zaytsevo, and Kodema, Ukraine's military said earlier.
Russian strikes killed eight civilians in Donetsk province yesterday, its governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special military operation" to demilitarise its southern neighbour.
Ukraine, which won independence when the Russian-dominated Soviet Union broke up in 1991, and its Western allies have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for a war of conquest.
The invasion of Ukraine has touched off Europe's most devastating conflict since World War II.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced and cities blasted to ruins.
The war has also threatened the global economy with an energy and food supply crisis.
President Zelensky accused Russia of trying to prevent European nations from filling their gas storage facilities enough to cope with the coming winter.
Sweden, which along with Finland is pressing to join NATO in response to Russia's invasion, has announced nearly $50 million worth of additional military aid to Ukraine during a visit to Stockholm by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Mr Kuleba urged Sweden to provide weapons such as howitzers and shells.
"Every euro, every bullet, every shell matters," he said.
Germany will also send more arms to Ukraine in coming weeks and help upgrade Kyiv's artillery and air defence capacities, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a conference in Prague, where he also reaffirmed German support for Ukraine and several other ex-Soviet republics to join the European Union.