KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s nuclear power firm warned Sunday that rocket attacks on the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant risked a “nuclear disaster” as the governments of Russia and Ukraine traded blame for the explosions at the facility.
For days, experts have warned that intensive fighting around the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine posed a grave threat but purported strikes on Saturday near the plant’s spent fuel storage facility prompted even more alarm.
“This is particularly dangerous because these buildings are not built with the same kind of reinforced concrete that the reactor containment building is,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “These places were not designed as fortresses against external missile or artillery strikes.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged a “stronger response from the international community” following the attacks and said that he had spoken with Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, to seek further sanctions on Moscow’s nuclear industry. He accused the Kremlin of conducting “nuclear terror.”
The Russian-installed local government of Enerhodar, where the plant is located, accused Ukraine of hitting the facility using a 220-mm Uragan multiple rocket launcher system.
“The administrative buildings and the adjacent territory of the storage facility were damaged,” it said in a statement given to Interfax news.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said the situation presented a dire threat to public health and the environment in Ukraine and far beyond its borders.
On Sunday, he demanded he be allowed to visit the site with a team of nuclear experts. “We can put together a safety, security and safeguards mission and deliver the indispensable assistance and impartial assessment that is needed,” he said in a statement.
But the likelihood of an immediate visit appeared remote as fighting intensifies in the contested area.
The shelling also damaged radiation monitoring sensors at the facility, and wounded at least one worker, Ukraine’s state nuclear power firm Energoatom said.
“This time a nuclear catastrophe was miraculously avoided, but miracles cannot last forever,” the company said in a statement Sunday.
At least 174 containers of spent nuclear fuel are stored at the site, which is Europe’s biggest atomic power plant. According to Energoatom, Russian troops “aimed specifically” at the containers.
Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant has been under Russian control since March, but is run by Ukrainian workers.
According to the company, damage to technology at the facility meant that “timely detection and response in the event of a deterioration in the radiation situation or leakage of radiation from containers of spent nuclear fuel are not yet possible,” the firm said.
Russia originally seized the facility after one of its projectiles caused a fire in the plant’s complex, igniting concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s four nuclear sites that have continued in the months since.
The ongoing fighting has no precedent in military history, experts said.
“This is the first time in the history of the nuclear age that a major nuclear power facility for a sustained period of time is in the middle of an active war zone,” said Kimball.
He warned that loss of power at the plant also posed a significant threat. “Each of these power plants has a certain number of days for which they have backup diesel power generation,” he said.
Zelensky on Friday cited the attack on Zaporizhzhia as another reason Russia should be recognized as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” which he has repeatedly called for since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
Russia’s Defense Ministry in turn has said that protection by Russian-backed forces was the reason the plant was not more extensively damaged.
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