By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) -Russia backs U.N. atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi’s idea of a trilateral meeting with Ukraine to ensure the safety of its nuclear facilities after Thursday’s scare, but not at Chernobyl as Grossi wants, Moscow and the watchdog said on Monday.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first time war has raged in a country with such an advanced and established nuclear power programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said.
The country has four operational nuclear power plants, including Europe’s largest by capacity, at Zaporizhzhia near Crimea.
A building close to but separate from the reactors at Zaporizhzhia caught fire on Thursday after what Grossi said appeared to be a hit by a Russian military projectile. Russia blamed Ukrainian saboteurs. Russian forces now control the plant, with Ukrainian staff working under their orders.
The fire was extinguished and the reactors undamaged but the incident highlighted the potentially catastrophic consequences if a nuclear plant were hit.
Grossi proposed the three-way talks at Chernobyl, where Russia has seized a radioactive waste facility near the defunct power plant where the world’s worst nuclear accident happened in 1986. The aim is to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.
“Russia supported Grossi’s idea regarding a trilateral meeting and we expect that the Ukrainians will also be cooperative,” Russia’s IAEA ambassador, Mikhail Ulyanov, told reporters on Monday.
“I believe Chernobyl is not the best place for such a meeting. There are numerous capitals in the world.”
Grossi told a news conference later on Monday: “We heard from the Russian Federation that they would rather do it somewhere else but this is going to be part of a process of consultation where we are going to be listening to the Russian side and to the Ukrainian side and see what is possible.”
Ukraine told the IAEA on Sunday that Russian forces had switched off some mobile networks and the internet at Zaporizhzhia, making communication with the outside harder, and communication with Chernobyl was now only possible by email.
“I am deeply concerned about this turn of events,” Grossi said in a statement on Monday, adding that requiring the approval of Russian forces was “not a safe way to run a nuclear power plant”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy backed the idea of a meeting, according to a French readout on Sunday of a conversation between him and French President Emmanuel Macron, who supports the Chernobyl plan.
(Additional reporting by John IrishEditing by Gareth Jones, John Stonestreet and Nick Macfie)