Druzhivka, Ukraine – Fighting broke out on Saturday near a sprawling nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings from nuclear safety watchdogs earlier this week that conditions there posed dangers and were “out of control”.
The Russian army is using the Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest in Europe, as a base to attack the Ukrainian-controlled city of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, it launched a barrage of Grad rockets, 11 apartment buildings and 36 private homes. Three people were wounded, the Ukrainian military said.
The Ukrainian military said the attack also cut off electricity, water and natural gas supplies in the town, as residents were fleeing artillery shelling and the attendant risk of radiation exposure.
Russian forces began launching artillery attacks from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military said it could not respond due to fears it would hit a reactor at the plant, igniting a radiological disaster.
Ukraine has also accused the Russians of carrying out bombings at the station aimed at alarming European allies about nuclear safety and discouraging the armament of Ukraine.
The Zaporizhzhia plant occupies a perilous spot on the wide Dnipro River, along the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controls the west bank, while the Russians are holed up around the factory on the east bank of the river.
The battles near the nuclear plant come as clashes continue elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank attacks on the eastern town of Bakhmut, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting along the front in recent days.
The Ukrainian army continued to hit targets far behind Russia’s front lines, hoping to reduce ammunition and fuel supplies. It said in a statement that US-supplied HIMARS missiles helped turn the tide in the war, and Ukraine on Friday bombed three command posts and six ammunition depots at various locations behind enemy lines along the front.
Anger over nuclear safety violations — Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” — did nothing to drive the Russian military from the site, and fighting continued. Daily, with explosions in the early Friday afternoon. Mr Grossi described conditions at the plant as “out of control”.
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Mr Grossi said he was much more concerned about Zaporizhia than he was about Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, which irradiated the surrounding region and endangered Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think we’re fine,” Mr Grossi said, noting that his agency had regularly inspected the station and brought back radiation-monitoring sensors and other detectors.
But the IAEA has been unable to gain access to key parts of the reactors in Zaporizhzhi, as the occupying Russian force and surrounding bombing make it too dangerous for the inspectors. He added that this raises the possibility that if damage occurs to the facility, it may be difficult, at best, to assess the risk.
Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Enrahwatam, said in a statement on Saturday that Russian soldiers had occupied basements at the plant and were preventing employees from sheltering in them despite the dangers of fighting in the area. “People have no shelter and are in danger,” the statement said.
Denying access to shelters comes on top of other psychological pressures for Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room and other factory employees, who have been subjected to harsh interrogations including torture with electric shocks, according to Ukrainian officials. Officials said the tension poses a risk of accidents caused by human error.
Explosions on Friday destroyed high-voltage electrical wires, forcing Ukrainian workers to cut production at one of the plant’s six reactors. Two more were already out of business, and the third is undergoing routine maintenance.
Later in the day, a second series of explosions destroyed a building on the plant’s premises, according to Ukraine’s state nuclear power company. The company said that Russia carried out the bombings. The Russian military said the attacks came from the Ukrainian side.
In his evening address to Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday highlighted what he called the “brazen crime” of the Russian military using a nuclear power plant as a cover.
“The occupiers have created another very dangerous situation for everyone in Europe,” said Mr. Zelensky, citing the explosions earlier in the day at the factory. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. Any bombing of this facility is a public and shameless crime, an act of terrorism.”
Mr. Zelensky’s adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, spoke of the danger more candidly in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting that a catastrophe sending radiation over Europe could happen any day.
“This morning it became possible in Europe only because the Zaporizhzhia NPP miraculously did not explode yesterday,” he wrote, using an acronym for the nuclear power plant. He suggested that the United Nations negotiate a Russian withdrawal from the plant that would bring the site under the control of an independent “special commission.”
Western countries have imposed severe sanctions on Russia for its war on Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky has called on it to extend those sanctions to the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom. The The company has signed contracts with dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey and Finland, to design and build nuclear power plants
“This is a purely safety issue,” Zelensky said. “A person who creates nuclear threats to other nations is certainly incapable of using nuclear techniques safely.”
Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “threatens one of the world’s largest nuclear energy programs”. Noting multiple safety violations at the Zaporizhzhia plant and describing the situation as “out of control.”
He said, “Inaction is unreasonable.” “If an accident occurs at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, we will not blame a natural disaster. We will only have ourselves to respond to it.”
Ukrainian military commanders and civilian officials say placing military equipment at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage.
Russia parked an armored personnel carrier and trucks in the automated room of reactor No. 1, according to Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, the city that houses the nuclear plant.
Orlov said Russia is placing rocket-propelled grenades between the reactor buildings. Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Agency claimed to have infected one of them with A Drone ammunition in July.
The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine said in a statement that Russia’s use of the site for military purposes was also intended to signal the danger of continuing Western policies to arm Ukraine.
The council’s Center for Combating Disinformation defined the goal as increasing “the fear in Europe of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe and decreasing Western countries’ willingness to provide military assistance.”
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Weston, Vt.