Putin Agrees to Send Experts to Zaporizhzhia Plant Amid Fears Of Shutdown

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said that it has reached a verbal agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to prevent potential catastrophe.

The two leaders spoke via phone on Friday as tensions escalated between Russian and Ukrainian forces surrounding Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. It was originally built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and sits 300 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear facility that melted down in 1986. Russian forces seized control of the plant on March 1, yet Ukrainians still operate it.

"President Macron once again emphasized his concern over the risks that the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant poses to nuclear safety and security, and expressed his support for sending a mission of IAEA experts to the site as quickly as possible, under conditions approved by Ukraine and the U.N. (United Nations)," said Macron's office, adding that Putin agreed both to the deployment as well as to the terms discussed.

The Kremlin's version of the conversation was different, tossing blame on Ukrainian forces for the escalation around the plant.

"Vladimir Putin stressed that the regular strikes on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant by the Ukrainian military creates the danger of a major nuclear disaster that could lead to radiation contamination of vast territories," the Kremlin said. "The Russian side confirmed its readiness to provide the necessary assistance to the agency's inspectors."

"Both leaders noted the importance" of sending IAEA experts to the plant for an assessment of "the situation on the ground," the Kremlin added.

The technical details and timeline of the deployment were intended to be discussed by the two presidents "in the next few days," Macron's office said.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant Fears
A Ukrainian Emergency Ministry rescuer attends an exercise in the city of Zaporizhzhia on August 17 in case of a possible nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said that it has reached a verbal agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy International Atomic Energy Agency experts to the Zaporizhzhia plant to prevent potential catastrophe. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a case for peace and defended Ukraine, saying repeated shelling of the nuclear plant could lead to "another Chernobyl." The comments were somewhat surprising considering just weeks earlier Erdogan met with Putin in Russia to discuss their nations' relationship and their aim to collaborate.

Within the past week, both Russia and Ukraine have heightened rhetoric about enemy aggression and potential for "catastrophe," as described by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—who alleged in a televised address on Monday that Russia was engaging in "blackmail" and that the plant had become a storage facility for weapons used to launch attacks on neighboring areas.

Both countries have also accused one another of "false flag" attacks, with Ukraine making the allegation Thursday and Russia doing the same on Friday. Ukrainian intelligence officers said Russia could "raise the stakes" and stage a real terrorist attack, while Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in response that provocation by Ukraine would lead to Russia being "accused of creating a man-made disaster at this power plant."

On Friday, Ukrainian official Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast Military Administration, described smoke and audible explosions seen and heard around the plant. He said it was the result of Ukrainian defense forces in action, and that nobody was hurt.

Nuclear expert Hamish de Breton-Gordon told the newspaper The National that explosives wired inside the plant could heavily increase the chance of a meltdown and far-reaching pernicious effects.

"They've got six reactors at Zaporizhzhia, so in the worst case, the contamination could be absolutely massive and catastrophic," he said. "It would be less harmful to use a tactical nuclear weapon."

The implications of a potential plant shutdown could also be vast, according to nuclear experts who warn of negative impacts on Ukraine's energy system as well as an overall detrimental impact on climate change.

Newsweek reached out to Macron and Putin's offices for comment, as well as to the IAEA.