War over Ukraine nuclear plant raises safety fears

DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine – Fighting broke out Saturday near a vast nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings from nuclear safety watchdogs earlier this week that conditions there pose a risk. risk and “out of control”.

The Russian military used the Zaporizhzhia factory, Europe’s largest, as a base to attack the Ukrainian-controlled town of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, it fired a salvo of Grad missiles that damaged 11 apartment buildings and 36 privately owned homes, and wounded three people, the Ukrainian military said.

The Ukrainian military said the attack also knocked out electricity, water and natural gas supplies in the town, where residents were fleeing artillery attacks and the risk of radiation contamination.

Russian forces began staging artillery attacks from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military said they were unable to return fire because of fears it would hit a reactor at the plant. caused a radioactive disaster.

Ukraine also accuses the Russians of causing explosions at the plant to annoy European allies over nuclear safety and to discourage arming Ukraine.

The Zaporizhzhia plant occupies a craggy position on the vast Dnipro River, along the front line between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controlled the west bank, while the Russian army entrenched 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, where it took place. some of the fiercest fighting along the front in recent days.

Ukraine’s military continues to strike targets far behind Russia’s front lines, hoping to destroy ammunition and fuel supplies. The US-supplied HIMARS missile turned the tide of the war, and on Friday, Ukraine hit three command posts and six ammunition depots at different positions behind enemy lines along the South China Sea. battle, it said in a statement.

Outrage over nuclear safety violations – Rafael Grossi, head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, said on Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” – did nothing to dislodge Russian troops from the site, and fighting continued daily, with explosions in the early hours of Friday afternoon. Mr. Grossi called conditions at the plant “out of control.”

Mr. Grossi said he was much more worried about Zaporizhzhia than Chernobyl, where the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, had spilled over into the surrounding area and made it difficult for Europe.

“Chernobyl, I think we are fine,” said Mr. Grossi, noting that your agency has been checking the plant regularly and has restored sensors for radiation monitoring and other detection devices.

But the IAEA was unable to access critical parts of the reactors at Zaporizhzhia, as the occupation by Russian forces and the surrounding shelling made it too dangerous for inspectors. That raises the prospect that if damage does occur to the facility, it can at best be difficult to assess the extent of the danger, he added.

In a statement released on Saturday, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Enerhoatam, said Russian soldiers occupied basements at the plant and prevented employees from sheltering there, despite the risks. from the war in the region. “People have no shelter and are in danger,” the statement said.

According to Ukrainian officials, blocking access to the bunkers caused other psychological stress for the Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room and other plant employees, who were subjected to the attacks. Harsh interrogation included torture with electric shock, according to Ukrainian officials. Officials say the stress carries the risk of accidents caused by human error.

Friday’s explosions destroyed high-voltage power lines, forcing Ukrainian workers to reduce output at one of the plant’s six reactors. The other two have been idling and a third are undergoing routine maintenance.

Later in the day, a second series of explosions damaged a building on the plant’s premises, according to Ukraine’s state nuclear power company. The company said Russia staged the explosions; The Russian military said the attacks came from Ukraine.

In his nightly address to the Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday highlighted what he called the “brazen crime” of the Russian military using nuclear power plants as cover.

“The occupiers have created another extremely risky situation for everyone in Europe,” Mr. Zelensky said, citing explosions that occurred earlier in the day at the plant. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. And any shelling of this facility is an open, brazen crime, an act of terrorism.”

An adviser to Mr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, addressed this risk more bluntly in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting that a radiation disaster spreading across Europe could happen anywhere. which day.

“This morning in Europe became possible only because NPP Zaporizhzhia did not magically explode yesterday,” he wrote, using the abbreviation for nuclear power plant. He suggested that the United Nations should negotiate Russia’s withdrawal from the plant to put the site under the control of an independent “special commission”.

Western nations have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia because of its war with Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky called on them to extend these sanctions to Russia’s state nuclear power company, Rosatom. The The company has contracted with dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey and Finland, to design and build nuclear power plants.

“This is purely a matter of safety,” Mr. Zelensky said. “The one who poses nuclear threats to other countries is certainly not capable of using nuclear technology safely.”

Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Tuesday said the war in Ukraine “threatens one of the largest nuclear power programs in the world”. noted multiple safety violations at the Zaporizhzhia plant and described the situation as “out of control.”

“Inaction is unconscionable,” he said. “If an accident happened at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, we wouldn’t have a natural disaster to blame. We will only have ourselves to answer. “

Ukrainian military commanders and civilian officials say that equipping military equipment at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage.

According to Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, a town with a nuclear plant, Russia has parked an armored personnel carrier and a truck in the engine room of reactor No.

Orlov said Russia placed missile launchers between reactor buildings. Ukraine’s military intelligence agency claims to have attacked a Drone bombs in July.

Russia’s use of the site for military purposes also signals the danger of the West continuing its policies of arming Ukraine, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said in a statement.

The council’s Response Information Center defines its aim as to increase “fear in Europe about the possibility of a nuclear disaster and to reduce the desire of Western countries to provide military assistance”.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Weston, Vt.

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