‘Close call’: UN claims nuclear disaster narrowly avoided by fighting around Zaporizhzhia

A Ukrainian serviceman fires a mortar on a front line in Zaporizhzhia (REUTERS)
A Ukrainian serviceman fires a mortar on a front line in Zaporizhzhia (REUTERS)

Ukraine narrowly escaped disaster during fighting at the weekend around Europe’s largest atomic power plant with a barrage of shells, some falling near reactors and damaging a radioactive waste storage building, the UN nuclear watchdog claimed.

Russia and Ukraine on Monday traded blame for at least a dozen explosions at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which has been under Russian control since soon after it invaded but is across the Dnipro river from areas controlled by Kyiv.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Nato members to guarantee protection from “Russian sabotage” at nuclear facilities.

The head of Russia’s state-run nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said it had discussed Sunday’s shelling with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and said there was a risk of a nuclear accident.

The assault came as battles raged further east following Russian troop movements into the industrial Donbas region from around Ukraine’s recently recaptured Kherson in the south.

Whoever fired on the plant was taking “huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives”, said Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA.

“We were fortunate a potentially serious nuclear incident did not happen. Next time, we may not be so lucky,” Grossi said in a statement late on Sunday, describing the situation as a “close call”.

“We are talking metres, not kilometres,” he said.

Repeated shelling of the plant during the war has raised concern about a grave disaster in the country that suffered the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chornobyl meltdown.

Radiation levels remained normal and there were no reports of casualties, the IAEA said.

Russia’s response to military setbacks in recent weeks has included a barrage of missile strikes, many on power facilities that have left much of the country without electricity as winter sets in and temperatures drop below freezing.

Rosatom has controlled the facility through a subsidiary since President Vladimir Putin in October ordered Russia to formally seize the plant and transfer Ukrainian staff to a Russian entity. Kyiv says the transfer of assets amounts to theft.

Kyiv controls territory across the river from the power station, including the regional capital. The Zaporizhzhia plant itself and territory south of it fell to Russia in March.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (AFP via Getty Images)
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (AFP via Getty Images)

The Zaporizhzhia plant provided about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before Russia’s invasion, and has been forced to operate on back-up generators a number of times.

The reactors are shut down but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if the power driving the cooling systems is cut. Shelling has repeatedly cut power lines.

Russia’s defence ministry said Ukraine fired at power lines supplying the plant. Ukraine’s nuclear energy firm Energoatom said Russia’s military shelled the site, accusing it of nuclear blackmail and actions that were “endangering the whole world”.