By Uliana Pavlova, Olga Voitovych, Sarah Dean, Hannah Ritchie and Tara John, CNN
Most of the international team of nuclear experts visiting the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday have left, after overcoming initial challenges in reaching the facility, which included an hours-long delay, and a drive through an active war zone to reach the facility.
The visit by the team of 14 experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including its chief Rafael Grossi, came at a crucial moment for the plant, which has endured constant shelling and raised fears of a nuclear accident.
Their trip was mired in risk as shelling had broken out on Thursday, with both Russian and Ukrainian officials confirming that the nearby city of Enerhodar had endured a morning of bombardment.
Mortar shelling by Russians forced one of the the plant’s two working reactors to shut down on the same day, Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom said Thursday, while Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of shelling the IAEA mission’s pre-agreed route to the plant.
Grossi said that his team were determined to visit the plant, despite the bombardment. “Having come this far, I was not going to stop and with my courageous team we moved in. There were moments where fire was obvious,” he told reporters after the visit.
“Heavy machine gun artillery, mortars two or three times were really pretty concerning, I would say, for all of us. We had splendid support from the United Nations Security team that is here with me as well. So I think we showed that the international community is there, could be there — and we are continuing this,” he added.
The aim of the mission was to assess the “security and the safety situation” and to establish a permanent presence at the plant, which “we believe is indispensable to stabilize the situation, and to get regular, reliable, impartial, neutral updates of what the situation is there,” Grossi said earlier on Thursday.
While at the plant, the team was able to gather “a lot” of information in a few hours and see the “key things,” Grossi said, according to a video released by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
The IAEA chief has now left the plant, however Grossi said the UN nuclear watchdog is “not going anywhere” and will have a “continued presence” there.
“We are not going anywhere. The IAEA is now there at the plant and it’s not moving. It’s going to stay there. We’re going to have a continued presence there at the plant,” he said, speaking to reporters following the visit.
Grossi added that he would continue to worry until the situation at the plant had stabilized.
“I worry, and I will continue to be worried about the plant until we have a situation which is more stable, which is more predictable. It is obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times by chance [and] by deliberation,” he said.
“Wherever you stand, whatever you think about this war. This is something that cannot happen and this is why we are trying to put in place certain mechanisms and the presence,” he said.
So far, five IAEA inspection team remain at the plant after Grossi’s departure, Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom said in a statement.
It is expected that the remaining inspectors would stay at the plant until September 3, it added.
Ukraine would be unable to ensure the security of the mission while in the plant, as it is Russian-held, Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said earlier Thursday, stressing that situation around the nuclear facility remains “a mess.”
A prolonged IAEA presence at the nuclear plant would likely help to stave off the possibility of a dangerous nuclear accident. Russia would welcome a permanent IAEA presence at the facility, its diplomat to the agency and other international organizations in Vienna said Wednesday.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously said that he wants the IAEA to help strike a deal that would demilitarize Zaporizhzhia, rather than simply inspect the plant.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that Russia was doing everything it could so that the IAEA mission could safely carry out its work.
Frequent shelling in and around the plant has raised fears about a nuclear accident. Both sides have accused the other of nuclear terrorism, with Ukraine alleging that the Kremlin is using the nuclear plant as cover to protect its troops and launch attacks.
CNN is unable to verify who is responsible for the shelling.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Sergio Olmos, Daria Markina, Anastasia Graham-Yooll and Yulia Kesaieva contributed to this report.