DRUJKIVKA, Ukraine — Fighting raged near a sprawling nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on Saturday, despite warnings from nuclear safety watchdogs earlier in the week that conditions there presented risks and were ” out of control”.
The Russian army uses the factory in Zaporizhzhia, the largest in Europe, as a base to attack the Ukrainian-controlled town of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, it fired a volley of Grad rockets that damaged 11 apartment buildings and 36 private homes, and injured three people, according to the Ukrainian military.
The assault also cut off electricity, water and natural gas supplies to the town, where residents fled artillery attacks and subsequent radiation hazards, the Ukrainian military said.
Russian forces began launching artillery attacks from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military said it could not retaliate because it feared it might hit a reactor at the plant, triggering a radioactive catastrophe.
Ukraine has also accused the Russians of setting off explosions at the plant in an effort to confuse European allies over nuclear security and discourage Ukraine from arming.
The Zaporizhzhia factory 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 entrenched around the factory on the east bank of the river.
The fighting near the nuclear power plant came as clashes continued elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank assaults on the eastern town of Bakhmut, the site of some of the fiercest fighting on the front in recent times. last days.
The Ukrainian army continued to strike targets far behind Russia’s front lines, hoping to reduce ammunition and fuel reserves. US-supplied HIMARS rockets helped turn the tide of the war and on Friday Ukraine hit three command posts and six ammunition depots at various positions behind enemy lines along the front, it said. he said in a statement.
Outrage over nuclear security breaches – Rafael Grossi, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, said on Tuesday that “all the principles of nuclear security have been violated” – has done nothing to dislodge the Russian army from the site, and fighting continued every day, with explosions in the early afternoon of Friday. Mr Grossi described conditions at the factory as “out of control”.
Mr Grossi said he was much more concerned about Zaporizhzhia than Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, which irradiated the surrounding region and endangered Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think everything is fine,” Grossi said, noting that his agency had regularly inspected the plant and restored sensors for radiation monitoring and other detection devices.
But the IAEA was unable to access key parts of the Zaporizhzhia reactors because the Russian occupation force and surrounding bombardment make it too dangerous for inspectors. This raises the prospect that if damage is done to the facility, it may be difficult at best to assess the danger, he added.
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In a statement on Saturday, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Enerhoatam, said Russian soldiers had occupied the plant’s basements and were preventing employees from taking refuge there, despite the risk of combat in the area. “People have no shelter and are in danger,” the statement said.
The blocking of access to the shelters adds to other psychological stresses for Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room and other plant employees, who have been subjected to harsh interrogations, including torture with electric shocks, according to Ukrainian officials. The voltage poses risks of human-error accidents, officials said.
Friday’s explosions knocked out high-voltage power lines, forcing Ukrainian workers to cut output at one of the plant’s six reactors. Two others had already been idled and a third was undergoing routine maintenance.
Later in the day, a second series of explosions damaged a building on the premises of the plant, according to the Ukrainian nuclear power company. The company said Russia staged the blasts; The Russian military said the attacks came from the Ukrainian side.
In his overnight address to Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday highlighted what he called the “shameless crime” of the Russian military using the nuclear power plant as a cover.
“The occupiers have created another extremely risky situation for everyone in Europe,” Mr Zelensky said, citing the explosions earlier in the day at the factory. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. And any bombing of this facility is an open and brazen crime, an act of terror. »
An adviser to Mr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, addressed the risk even more starkly in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting a disaster sending radiation over Europe could happen any day .
“This morning in Europe became possible simply because the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant miraculously did not explode yesterday,” he wrote, using nuclear power plant shorthand. He suggested the United Nations should negotiate a Russian withdrawal from the plant that would put the site under the control of an independent “special commission”.
Western nations have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia for its war against Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky has called on them to extend those sanctions to the Russian 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
“It’s purely a matter of security,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Anyone who creates nuclear threats to other nations is certainly not capable of using nuclear technologies safely.”
Mr Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “threatens one of the largest nuclear programs in the world”. noting multiple security breaches at the Zaporizhzhia plant and describing the situation as “out of control”.
“Inaction is unacceptable,” he said. “If an accident occurs at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, we will not have a natural disaster to blame. We will only have to answer to ourselves.
The military equipment base at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage, according to Ukrainian army commanders and civilian officials.
Russia has parked an armored personnel carrier and trucks in an engine room of Reactor No. 1, according to Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, the town that houses the nuclear power plant.
Russia is placing artillery rocket launchers between reactor buildings, Orlov said. Ukraine’s military intelligence agency claimed to have hit one with a drone ammunition in July.
Russia’s use of the site for military purposes is also meant to signal the danger of continuing Western policies to arm Ukraine, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said in a statement.
The Council’s Center for Combating Disinformation identified the goal as increasing “fear in Europe of the possibility of nuclear catastrophe and reducing the desire of Western countries to provide military assistance”.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.