Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered his government to take control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in Ukraine, Europe's largest nuclear power facility.
However, the boss of Ukraine's state energy agency, Energoatom, also announced that he would be taking over the plant.
Russia has occupied the territory around the nuclear plant, which is close to the frontlines of its invasion of Ukraine, since March this year. But Ukrainian technicians have continued to operate it. The ZNPP's director on site, Ihor Murashev, was detained by Russian forces over the weekend.
"The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is now on the territory of the Russian Federation and, accordingly, should be operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies," Russia's RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.
Putin later signed a decree designating the facility "federal property."
Zaporizhzhia is one of the four regions where Moscow last month staged so-called referendums and later illegally annexed reporting broad majority support for joining the Russian Federation.
Ukraine's Energoatom calls decree 'worthless'
Russian nuclear power operator Rosenergoatom said it would look into how to repair damage at the plant, which had been totally offline until Wednesday after shellfire in the vicinity. The Russian firm also said it would transfer all the existing employees to a new Russian-owned company.
"The new operating organization is designed to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plant and the professional activities of the existing plant personnel," it said in a statement.
Ukraine's Energoatom, meanwhile, called the Russian company's establishment of a new company based in Moscow "worthless" and part of the "imaginary crazy world of the aggressor country."
"It's just a pity that they are trying to involve Ukrainian nuclear professionals, who have been heroically working under ZNPP occupation for more than seven months," Energoatom wrote. "Experiencing this madness on their own every day, they continue to ensure nuclear and radiation safety in Europe."
Energoatom's top official, Petro Kotin, said in a video message that he would take charge of "all future decisions regarding the operation of the station" from a central office.
"We will continue to work under Ukrainian law, within the Ukrainian energy system, within Energoatom," he said.
IAEA's Grossi in Ukraine, soon to visit Moscow
Meanwhile, the director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, made his second trip to Ukraine in a matter of weeks on Wednesday.
Grossi and an IAEA team visited the Zaporizhzhia site to assess the damage recently and continue working to secure an agreement between the two sides to halt all fighting in an exclusion zone around the facility.
"On our way to Kyiv for important meetings," Grossi wrote on Twitter, showing an image of himself boarding a train in Ukrainian colors. "The need for a Nuclear Safety and Security Protection Zone around Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is now more urgent than ever."
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of OPEC+ oil-producing nations in Vienna, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said "we fully share this goal" of establishing a security zone around the facility. But he added that "the question is how it's going to be implemented."
"Rafael Grossi has some practical ideas," Ulyanov said. "They will be discussed tomorrow in Kyiv and next week in Russia."
Ulyanov also said he doubted Grossi would again visit the nuclear power plant, saying "the security situation is rather volatile."
The IAEA also said on Wednesday that plant operators were preparing to start unit 5 at the facility at reduced power to produce steam and heat for the needs of the plant, which could take "some time." Until Wednesday, all the plant's reactors had been off, with the site's power needs serviced either by on-site generators or the Ukrainian electricity grid when connections were functioning.
Energoatom's Kotin told the Associated Press in a recent interview that it might be necessary to restart two of the reactors in the coming days, ready for winter, to provide power for heating to protect safety equipment inside.
International attention on the plant in recent months has intensified given that Soviet-era Ukraine was the site of the world's largest ever nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986.
msh/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)