Russia has rejected calls from Kyiv and United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres to remove its troops and weapons from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southeastern Ukraine, and warned that it may shut down Europe’s biggest atomic plant.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed the issue with Mr Guterres and Turkish leader Recep Tayyep Erdogan on Thursday, as fighting continued in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine and Russian rocket fire killed at least 12 people in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
“Particular attention was paid to the topic of Russia’s nuclear blackmail at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Mr Zelenskiy said after meeting Mr Guterres in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
“This deliberate terror on the part of the aggressor can have global catastrophic consequences…Therefore, the UN must ensure the security of this strategic object, its demilitarisation and complete liberation from Russian troops.”
Mr Zelenskiy’s demand echoed a call from Mr Guterres last week “for all military activities in the immediate vicinity of the plant to cease immediately” and for the establishment of a “safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area.”
Russia seized the facility shortly after launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, and its troops oversee the running of the plant and its six reactors by Ukrainian technicians.
Ukraine and Russia blame each other for shelling that has damaged radiation sensors and power lines at the site and injured at least one worker. Kyiv says Russian troops have mined and placed heavy weapons around the plant and are using it as a “nuclear shield” from which they fire at Ukrainian forces in government-held territory across the Dnieper river.
“Proposals for a demilitarised zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are unacceptable. Their implementation would make the plant even more vulnerable,” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical and biological protection forces of the Russian military, warned that “if the negative development of the situation continues due to shelling of the atomic plant by Ukraine, the question of putting the 5th and 6th power units into ‘cold reserve’ may be considered, which would lead to the shutdown of the (power station).”
Ukrainian atomic power operator Energoatom warned that shutting down the plant – where only two reactors are now believed to be generating power – could be disastrous.
“If disconnected from the power network of Ukraine, the generators could not be used for cooling fuel in the case of a power cut at the plant. This will bring closer the possibility of a radiation catastrophe at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” the company said.
In talks with Mr Guterres and Mr Erdogan, Mr Zelenskiy also discussed the implementation of a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey in July to end a five-month Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
More than 600,000 tonnes of grain and other agricultural products have been shipped from Ukraine since the deal came into force this month, easing fears of hunger in some parts of Africa and Asia.
Heavy fighting and shelling continued along the frontline in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, and at least 12 people were killed and 20 injured when Russian rockets hit an apartment building in Kharkiv in the early hours of Thursday.