Ukraine accused Russian forces Sunday of imperiling a captured nuclear power plant, saying that a catastrophic radiation leak was “miraculously avoided” after rockets landed on the complex’s grounds. It was the latest threat to Europe’s largest nuclear facility, where fighting in the southern region has prompted fears of a major accident.
The rockets fired Saturday evening hit near a dry spent-fuel storage facility containing 174 casks, each with 24 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear energy company. One person was wounded by shrapnel and many windows were damaged in the attack, which a pro-Russian regional official attributed to Ukrainian forces.
Russian forces have controlled the Zaporizhzhia plant since March, using it as a base to launch artillery barrages at the Ukrainian-controlled town of Nikopol across the Dnieper River for the past month. Saturday’s assault included a volley of rockets that Ukrainian officials said damaged 47 apartment buildings and houses, adding that Ukraine cannot answer the attacks for fear that a counterassault would set off a radiation disaster.
The stakes were made plainer Saturday night.
“Apparently, they aimed specifically at the casks with spent fuel, which are stored in the open near the site of shelling,” Energoatom said in a post on Telegram, a messaging platform. Three radiation detection monitors at the site were damaged, making it “currently impossible” to sense and respond to a radiation leak in a timely manner, the post said.
“There are still risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances, and the fire hazard is also high,” the nuclear energy company said in an earlier post.
The fighting, along with Russia’s occupation of parts of the plant and the stress borne by plant workers, prompted Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, to warn last week that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated.”
Conditions at the plant are “out of control,” he added in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Russia struck back at Ukraine’s assertions Sunday. The head of the pro-Russian administration in Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, wrote on Telegram that Ukrainian forces had used an Uragan cargo rocket — a type of cluster weapon — to target the spent-fuel storage area and damage administrative buildings. Russia’s Defense Ministry has previously accused Ukraine of attacking the plant, saying Thursday that Ukraine had carried out an artillery strike against it.
But Ukraine insisted Russia was to blame. During a national television call-in program Sunday, the head of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia regional military administration, Oleksandr Starukh, said that there was only a three-second delay between the firing and the landing of each shell — evidence, he said, that the attack had come from Russian forces nearby.
Since invading 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 has also targeted infrastructure in Ukrainian hands.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s intelligence directorate, Andrei Yusov, said that Russia was shelling the Zaporizhzhia site to destroy infrastructure and to damage power lines that supply electricity to Ukraine’s national grid and, ultimately, to cut power in the country’s south. There was no independent confirmation of his assertion.
Yusov said on Telegram that Russian forces had also laid mines at the plant’s power units.
Concern about safety at Zaporizhzhia has been mounting since March, when a fire broke out in one of its buildings during fighting as Russian forces took control. Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces have since stored weapons, including artillery, at the plant; in recent weeks, they began shelling Nikopol from its grounds.
Ukraine has also accused Russia of setting off explosions at the plant in order to unnerve Ukraine’s European allies about nuclear safety and perhaps discourage them from arming Ukraine further.
The danger the plant could pose to the entire continent is yet another instance of the war’s potential to batter parts of the world far beyond the battlefield.
Since Russia invaded, Ukraine’s grain has all but disappeared from the world market, helping inflate global food prices and endanger millions of people at risk of going hungry. The five-month shortage has just begun to ease with a deal last month to allow Ukrainian agricultural products to leave embargoed ports.
Four ships carrying more than 160,000 metric tons, or about 176,000 U.S. tons, of sunflower oil, corn and meal sailed from Ukrainian ports Sunday as part of the deal, the United Nations said. But experts have warned the global food crisis could last for years, fueled by the continuing fallout from various wars, the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather worsened by climate change.
The war in Ukraine has also pushed the world back toward the all-too-familiar politics of the Cold War, with the United States and its Western allies aligned against Russia, China and others, leaving many less powerful countries caught in between.
The divide was once again on display Sunday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in South Africa, becoming the third high-ranking U.S. official to visit Africa in two weeks. Blinken’s visit comes hot on the heels of a charm-offensive tour of African countries by his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in which Lavrov deflected blame for food shortages. So far, there are no reports of a radiation leak at Zaporizhzhia. But the prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to reclaim land in Kherson province, which is southwest of Zaporizhzhia, also heightens the instability surrounding the plant.
Ukraine was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 reactor fire at Chernobyl in the country’s north, which spread deadly radiation throughout the region and put Europe at risk.
Chernobyl, too, has seen fighting this year. But Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency said he was far more worried about Zaporizhzhia, noting that while his agency had been able to restore sensors and resume regular inspections at Chernobyl, the Russian occupation and continued shelling at Zaporizhzhia had prevented the watchdog from accessing key parts of its reactors.
The Russian occupation of the plant has put its employees under great pressure, according to Energoatom, as Russian forces hunting for saboteurs have subjected them to harsh interrogations that have included torture with electrical shocks, Ukrainian officials assert. The exiled mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, has said that some workers have disappeared and that at least one was killed.
The acute stress, Ukrainian officials warn, makes it likelier that employees will commit some error that could lead to an accident.