Druzhkivka, Ukraine — Heavy fighting broke out on Saturday near a sprawling nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings by nuclear safety regulators earlier this week that the situation there was risky and “out of control.”
The Russian military has been attacking the Ukrainian-held town of Nikopol across the river from Europe’s largest Zaporozhye factory. It fired a barrage of Grad rockets on Saturday, damaging 11 apartment buildings and 36 private homes, Three people were injured, the Ukrainian military said.
The Ukrainian military said the attack also cut off electricity, water and gas supplies to the town, where residents have been fleeing shelling and the accompanying radiation risk.
Russian troops began shelling from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military said it could not fight back for fear it would hit the plant’s reactors, triggering a radiation catastrophe.
Ukraine has also accused the Russians of causing an explosion at a nuclear power plant in an effort to rattle European allies over nuclear security and to block the supply of weapons to Ukraine.
Zaporozhye plants are located on the wide Dnieper River, on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Ukrainian troops control the west bank, while the Russians huddle around factories on the east bank of the river.
The fighting near the nuclear power plant comes as conflict continues elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank attacks on the eastern town of Bakhmut, the site of some of the heaviest fighting on the front lines in recent days.
The Ukrainian military continues to strike targets far from Russian front lines, hoping to reduce supplies of ammunition and fuel. It said in a statement that U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets helped turn the tide of the war, with Ukraine hitting three command posts and six ammunition depots on Friday at various positions behind enemy lines on the front line.
Anger over violations of nuclear safety — Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, said Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” — did not drive Russian troops out of the field, and the fighting continued In continuing daily, there were explosions early Friday afternoon. Mr Grossi described the situation at the factory as “out of control”.
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Mr Grossi said he was far more worried about Zaporozhye than about Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster and in Ukraine, the radiation surrounding area and endanger Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think we’re fine,” Mr Grossi said, noting that his agency regularly inspected the plant and repaired radiation monitoring sensors and other detection equipment.
But the IAEA has been unable to gain access to key parts of the Zaporozhye reactor because occupied Russian troops and the surrounding shelling were too dangerous for inspectors. That raises the prospect that, if the facility is damaged, it may be difficult at best to assess the danger, he added.
Enerhoatam, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, said in a statement Saturday that Russian soldiers had occupied the basement of the plant and prevented employees from taking refuge in it, despite the risk of fighting in the area. “People have no shelter and are at risk,” the statement said.
Blocking access to the shelter was among the other psychological pressures faced by Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room and other plant employees who were subjected to harsh interrogations, including torture with electric shocks, according to Ukrainian officials. Officials said the tension created the risk of accidents caused by human error.
Friday’s explosion destroyed high-voltage power lines, forcing Ukrainian workers to reduce output at one of the plant’s six reactors. The other two have been idle and the third is undergoing routine maintenance.
Later in the day, a second explosion damaged a building inside the nuclear power plant, according to Ukraine’s State Nuclear Power Corporation. The company said it was Russia that carried out the explosion; the Russian military said the attack came from Ukraine.
In a nightly address to Ukrainians on Friday, Russian President Volodymyr Zelensky highlighted what he called the “blatant crime” of the Russian military’s use of nuclear power plants as cover.
“The occupiers have created another extremely dangerous situation for everyone in Europe,” Mr Zelensky said, citing an explosion at the factory earlier in the day. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. Any shelling of the facility is an open, blatant criminal act and an act of terror.”
Zelensky’s adviser Mikhailo Podoljak was more outspoken about the risk on Twitter on Saturday, suggesting a radiation catastrophe spreading across Europe could happen any day.
“It was possible in Europe this morning only because the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant miraculously didn’t explode yesterday,” he wrote, using the shorthand for nuclear power plant. He suggested the United Nations should negotiate Russia’s withdrawal from the plant, which would put the plant under the control of an independent “special committee”.
Western countries have imposed tough sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine, and Mr Zelensky has called on them to extend the sanctions to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company.This The company has signed contracts for the design and construction of nuclear power plants in dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey, Finland, etc.
“It’s purely a security issue,” Mr Zelensky said. “Anyone who poses a nuclear threat to other countries has absolutely no ability to use nuclear technology safely.”
The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr Grossi, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “is threatening one of the world’s largest nuclear power projects”. It noted multiple safety violations at the Zaporozhye plant and described the situation as “out of control”.
“Inaction is unconscionable,” he said. “In the event of an accident at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, we will not blame natural disasters. We will have only ourselves to answer.”
Ukrainian army commanders and civilian officials said the deployment of military equipment at the plant gave Russia a tactical advantage.
Russia has parked an armored personnel carrier and trucks in the engine room of the No. 1 reactor, according to Dmytro Orlov, mayor of the town of Enel Khodar, where the nuclear power plant is located.
Orlov said Russia placed rocket launchers between the reactor buildings.Ukrainian military intelligence claims to use a Drone ammunition in July.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said in a statement that Russia’s use of the site for military purposes was also intended to demonstrate the dangers of the West’s continued policy of arming Ukraine.
The commission’s Center for Combating Disinformation has identified its goals as “increasing European fears of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe and reducing Western desire for military assistance”.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Weston, Vermont.