Artillery barrages at the weekend struck Europe’s largest nuclear power station, located in Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine, sparking international fears over the risk of radiation leaks.
The shelling on Saturday damaged radiation sensors after striking close to a storage facility for spent fuel at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power holding company, said on Sunday. Each side blamed the other for the attack. No radiation leaks were reported.
Mounting concern about the threat came as the situation at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports had appeared to be easing, with another convoy of vessels carrying agricultural exports setting sail on Sunday.
Russia’s Interfax news agency on Sunday quoted Russian occupation forces as accusing Ukraine of conducting the shelling and confirmed that a location near the spent nuclear fuel store had been hit.
In a statement, Energoatom said the Russians had fired rockets at the plant.
The development followed two shelling incidents late last week that prompted the UN’s nuclear safety watchdog to sound the alarm and call for a team of independent experts to visit the plant.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Saturday that he was “extremely concerned by the shelling . . . which underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond”.
He described the incident as “the latest in a long line of increasingly alarming reports” and warned that “any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences”.
On Sunday, Grossi wrote on Twitter that “the IAEA team must go to Zaporizhzhia . . . We can put together a safety, security and safeguards mission and deliver the indispensable assistance and impartial assessment that is needed.”
The Zaporizhzhia plant is one of four operating nuclear power stations in Ukraine. These are in addition to the decommissioned Chernobyl facility, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, when the country was under Soviet rule.
Following a Sunday phone call with European Council president Charles Michel to discuss the situation at Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Russian nuclear terror requires a stronger response from the international community — sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry and nuclear fuel.”
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, wrote on Twitter: “The EU condemns Russia’s military activities around Zaporizhzhia.” He added: “This is a serious and irresponsible breach of nuclear safety rules and another example of Russia’s disregard for international norms.”
Energoatom on Sunday repeated calls for Russian forces to withdraw from the plant, which is located in the southern coastal region occupied by Russian forces.
“Russian forces are likely using the nuclear power plant to play on western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in an effort to degrade western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, while also effectively using the plant as a nuclear shield to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces and equipment,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank.
The heightened tensions around the plant came as Ukraine reported that four more commercial vessels carrying Ukrainian grain for export had sailed on Sunday from ports in the Odesa region. They followed the first four shipments of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea that set off last week as part of a UN and Turkey-brokered agreement aiming to break Russia’s months-long naval blockade of Ukrainian trade.
Kurt Volker, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former special US envoy to Ukraine, said the increased supply of longer-range weaponry to Ukraine had made the Black Sea “calmer” by pushing back Russia’s naval presence and in turn, opening a corridor for renewed grain exports.
But he said that increased hostilities in southern Ukraine — including at the Zaporizhzhia plant — amounted to Russia stirring fear in order to persuade the international community to press Ukraine not to use advanced weaponry provided by the west to recapture territory. “I think the international community sees through it,” he added.
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Odesa