Fighting around Ukrainian power plant risks nuclear disaster, UN watchdog says

Four more grain ships leave Black Sea coast as heavy shelling and fighting continue in east and south of country

Ukraine said a worker was injured and radiation sensors damaged by Russian shelling of Europe’s biggest atomic power station, after the head of a United Nations energy watchdog said fighting around the plant posed a “very real risk of a nuclear disaster”.

Moscow in turn accused Ukrainian forces of firing on the Enerhodar power station, which is run by local staff overseen by Russian troops who have seized the area around the plant in the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region of southeastern Ukraine.

International concern over the site spiralled as heavy shelling and fighting continued in eastern and southern Ukraine, and four more ships carrying grain left the country’s Black Sea coast under a deal to end a five-month Russian blockade of its ports.

“The Russian occupiers once again fired rockets at the site of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the town of Enerhodar. They hit the ... site directly next to the dry spent-fuel storage facility,” Ukrainian atomic energy agency Energoatom said on Sunday.


“Three radiation-monitoring sensors ... were damaged. Consequently, 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 possible,” the agency added, noting that one employee had been taken to hospital with shrapnel wounds.

“This time a nuclear catastrophe was miraculously avoided, but miracles cannot last forever ... Therefore, we once again stress the need for the urgent withdrawal of the armed Russian troops from the site ... and the establishment of a demilitarised zone.”

Technicians at the plant disconnected one of its six reactors from the Ukrainian electricity grid after shelling damaged power lines on Friday, in an incident that Russia and Ukraine blamed on each other.

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces are using the turbine halls of two reactors to store military vehicles, weapons and ammunition, and have mined areas of the facility.

Russia says Ukraine is shelling the plant, and Moscow-installed officials in Enerhodar warned that any major damage would probably spew radiation over government-controlled parts of the country, including western Ukraine “and then the whole Continent will suffer”.

“I’m extremely concerned by the shelling yesterday at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Saturday.

“Military action jeopardising the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs. Any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Mr Grossi said he wanted to lead an IAEA mission to the plant, which “would play a crucial role in helping to stabilise the nuclear safety and security situation there, as we have at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and elsewhere in Ukraine in recent months where we have also delivered nuclear safety and security equipment that is urgently needed”.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he spoke to EU Council president Charles Michel on Sunday “about the situation on the battlefield, in particular at the Zaporizhzhia [power station]. Russian nuclear terror requires a stronger response from the international community — sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry and nuclear fuel.”

Four more ships carrying a total of nearly 170,00 tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs left southern Ukrainian ports on Sunday, under a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey to end a Russian blockade; four other ships departed last week, including one heading for Ringaskiddy.

“The threat of Russian provocations and terrorist acts remains. Everyone should be aware of this,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “But if our partners fulfil their part of the commitment and guarantee the security of supplies, this will really solve the global food crisis.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe