‘Close call’ in shelling near nuclear reactor on Ukraine’s frontline

  • The head of the IAEA warns against the enormous risks of fighting at the plant
  • Russia, Ukraine share the blame for the bombings
  • President Zelenskiy says the eastern region has been hit by heavy artillery
  • “Fiercest battles” in Donetsk region, says Zelenskiy

KYIV, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Ukraine narrowly escaped disaster during weekend fighting that rocked Europe’s largest nuclear power plant with a barrage of shells, some falling near the reactors and damaging a building storage of radioactive waste, the UN nuclear watchdog said.

On Monday, Russia and Ukraine traded blame for at least a dozen explosions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which has been under Russian control since it invaded the country on February 24, but is through the Dnipro River from areas controlled by Kiev.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged NATO members to guarantee protection from “Russian sabotage” at nuclear facilities. The head of Russia’s state nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said he had discussed Sunday’s bombing with the IAEA, and said there was a risk of a nuclear accident.

The assault came as fighting rages further east following Russian troop movements into the industrial Donbas region from the Kherson area recently retaken from Ukraine in the south.

Whoever fired at the plant was taking “huge risks and gambling with the lives of many people,” said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

IAEA experts visited the site on Monday, and the agency said they found widespread damage, but nothing that compromised the plant’s essential systems.

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“They were able to confirm that – despite the severity of the bombing – key equipment was intact and there were no immediate nuclear safety or security concerns,” he said in a statement issued on Monday evening.

Reuters could not immediately verify which party was responsible. The strikes also hit a cooling pond, a cable to one reactor and a bridge to another, according to an IAEA team on the ground citing information provided by plant management.

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

“We’re talking about meters, not kilometers,” he said.

Repeated bombing of the plant during the war raised concerns of a major 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. While there was no direct impact on nuclear safety and security systems, “the bombing came dangerously close,” Grossi said.

FRESH MISSILES

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

A view shows Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant from the city of Nikopol, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine on November 7, 2022. Photo taken through the glass. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

Zelenskiy said half of the country’s power capacity was knocked out by Russian rockets.

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Grossi spoke to world leaders and reiterated the need for a nuclear safety zone and security protection around Zaporizhzhia, the IAEA said.

CEO Alexei Likhachev said Rosatom has been in negotiations with the IAEA “all night,” Interfax reported.

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. Kiev says that the transfer of assets is theft.

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

The Zaporizhzhia plant supplied about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before the Russian invasion, and was forced to operate with backup generators several times. It has six Soviet VVER-1000 V-320 water-cooled and water-moderated reactors containing Uranium 235.

The reactors are closed, but there is a risk that the nuclear fuel could overheat if the power that drives the cooling systems is cut. Shelling repeatedly cut power lines.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine fired at power lines supplying the plant. Ukrainian nuclear power company Energoatom said the Russian military bombed the site, accusing it of nuclear blackmail and actions that “endangered the whole world.”

“FIERCE BATTLES”

Russian forces withdrew from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson ten days ago in one of the largest withdrawals of the war, after being driven from the northeastern province of Kharkiv in September and driven from the capital Kiev in April.

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Moscow has strengthened the areas it still holds, and is pressing an offensive of its own along a stretch of the front line west of the city of Donetsk held by its proxies since 2014.

The Ukrainian military said late Monday that Russian forces were trying to advance around Bakhmut and Avdiivka in Donetsk, and shelled nearby towns.

Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia was shelling Kherson from across the Dnipro River, now that its troops had fled.

“There is no military logic: they just want to avenge the locals. This is a huge live war crime,” he tweeted. Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine.

Ukrainian police and prosecutors have identified four locations in Kherson where they suspect Russian forces tortured people before leaving the city, Ukraine’s general prosecutor said Monday. Moscow denies that its troops have committed atrocities in the areas they occupy.

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Maria Starkova in Lviv, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Caleb Davis in Gdansk, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Francois Murphy in Vienna and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Graff; Edited by Alex Richardson, William Maclean

Our standards: Thomson Reuters’ principles of trust.

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