Ukraine on Sunday accused Russian troops of endangering a captured nuclear power plant, saying a catastrophic radiation leak was “miraculously averted” after a rocket landed on the site. It is the latest threat to Europe’s largest nuclear facility, with fighting in the south raising fears of a major accident.
The rocket launched Saturday night struck near a dry spent fuel storage facility containing 174 containers, each containing 24 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, according to Ukrainian nuclear energy company Energoatom. One person was injured by shrapnel and many windows were damaged in the attack, which a pro-Russian regional official blamed on the Ukrainian army.
Russian forces have controlled the Zaporozhye factory since March, using it as a base for shelling over the Ukrainian-controlled town of Nikopol across the Dnieper River in the past month. Saturday’s attack included a barrage of rockets that Ukrainian officials said damaged 47 apartment buildings and homes, adding that Ukraine was unable to respond to the attack for fear of a radiation catastrophe if a counterattack occurred.
On Saturday night, the stakes became clearer.
“Apparently, they were specifically targeting barrels containing spent fuel, which were stored in open areas near the shelling site,” Energoatom said in a Telegram post. Three radiation detection monitors at the site were damaged and “currently unable” to sense and respond to radiation leaks in a timely manner, the post said.
“The risk of hydrogen leaks and sputtering of radioactive material remains, and the fire hazard is high,” the nuclear energy company said in an earlier article.
The fighting, along with the Russian occupation of parts of the factory and the pressure on factory workers, has prompted Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, to warn Last week, “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated”.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, he added that conditions at the factory were “out of control.”
Russia hit back at Ukraine’s claims on Sunday. The head of the pro-Russian government of Zaporozhye, Yevgeny Baritsky, wrote on the messaging platform Telegram that the Ukrainian army used Uragan cargo rockets – a cluster weapon – to target spent fuel storage areas and damage administrative buildings The Russian Defense Ministry, which had previously accused Ukraine of attacking the plant, said on Thursday that Ukraine had shelled it.
But Ukraine insists Russia is to blame. During a nationally televised call on Sunday, Oleksandr Starukh, head of Ukraine’s Zaporozhye regional military administration, said there was only a three-second delay between firing and the landing of each shell — saying there was evidence that the attack came from Nearby Russian troops.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia has made it a priority to seize critical infrastructure such as power plants, ports, transportation and agricultural storage and production facilities. It also targets infrastructure in Ukraine’s hands.
Andrei Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Intelligence Service, said that Russia was shelling the Zaporozhye region with the aim of destroying infrastructure and disrupting power lines that supply Ukraine’s national grid, and ultimately cutting off electricity in the south of the country. electricity supply. His claims have not been independently verified.
Mr Yusov said on Telegram that the Russian army had also planted mines on the plant’s power unit.
Concerns about the safety of Zaporozhye have been growing since March, when a fire broke out in one of the buildings during fighting controlled by Russian troops. Ukrainian authorities say Russian troops have since stockpiled weapons, including artillery, at the plant; in recent weeks they have begun shelling Nikopol from its grounds.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of causing an explosion at a nuclear power plant in an effort to upset Ukraine’s European allies over nuclear security and possibly prevent them from further arming Ukraine.
The danger the plant could pose to an entire continent is yet another example of how war could strike parts of the world far from the battlefield.
Ukrainian food has all but disappeared from world markets since the Russian invasion, fueling a rise in global food prices and putting millions at risk of starvation. A five-month shortage is just beginning to ease after an agreement was reached last month to allow Ukrainian agricultural products to leave embargoed ports.
Four vessels carrying more than 160,000 metric tons (about 176,000 U.S. tons) of sunflower oil, corn and meal set sail from Ukrainian ports on Sunday as part of the deal, the United Nations said. But experts have warned that the global food crisis could linger for years due to the lingering effects of various wars, the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening extreme weather caused by climate change.
The Ukraine war also pushed the world into Cold War politics, with the United States and its Western allies allied with Russia, China and others, with many less powerful nations caught in the middle.
The division resurfaced on Sunday when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in South Africa, becoming the third senior U.S. official to visit Africa in two weeks. Mr. Blinken’s visit follows a charm attack on the African country by his Russian counterpart Sergey V. Lavrov, in which Mr. Lavrov deflected blame for food shortages.
So far, there have been no reports of radiation leaks from Zaporozhye. But the prospect of a Ukrainian counterattack to clear land in Kherson province, southwest of Zaporozhye, has also added to the instability around the factory.
Ukraine is home to the world’s worst nuclear accident, and a 1986 reactor fire at Chernobyl in the north of the country spread deadly radiation across the region, putting Europe at risk.
Chernobyl has also fought this year. But the IAEA’s Mr Grossi said he was more worried about Zaporozhye, noting that while his agency was able to restore sensors and resume regular inspections of Chernobyl, the Russian occupation and the threat to Zaporozhye Continued shelling has prevented watchdogs from accessing key parts of its reactors.
According to Energoatom, the Russian occupation of the plant has put enormous pressure on its employees, as Russian troops have subjected them to harsh interrogations, including electroshock torture, as they hunt down the vandals, Ukrainian officials said. Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar, said some workers were missing and at least one person was killed.
Ukrainian officials have warned that the intense pressure makes employees more likely to make mistakes that could lead to accidents.
Matthew Mpock Bigger, Emma Bubola and Ruth McLean Contribution report.