‘Very real risk’ of nuclear disaster as fighting around Ukraine power plant worsens

International Atomic Energy Agency head responds to reports of strikes on the contested Zaporizhzhia plant on Friday

A serviceman with a Russian flag on his uniform stands guard near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant Credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

There is a “very real risk” of nuclear disaster unless fighting around Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant stops immediately, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned on Saturday.

He was reacting to reports of strikes on the plant on Friday, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of hitting at least one of the plant’s power lines, prompting its operators to disconnect a reactor despite no radioactive leak being detected.

“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 IAEA, said in a statement.

Mr Grossi, who leads the United Nations nuclear watchdog, urged all sides in the Ukraine conflict to exercise the “utmost restraint” around the plant.

The plant was captured by Russian forces in early March in the opening stage of the war but is still run by its Ukrainian technicians under Moscow-installed management.

Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Energoatom blamed Russia for the damage at the power station. Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the plant, saying a leak of radiation had been avoided only by luck.

The plant was captured by Russian forces in early March but is still run by its Ukrainian technicians under Moscow-installed management Credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Mr Grossi said that military action jeopardising the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia 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.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that “any bombing of this site is a shameless crime, an act of terror”.

And the Ukrainian foreign ministry had said that the “possible consequences of hitting a working reactor are equivalent to using an atomic bomb”.

Russia is believed to be storing military kit, including highly combustible ammunition, in Zaporizhzhia’s engine rooms.

Analysts believe Moscow is using the threat of a nuclear meltdown at the site to deter future donations of heavy weaponry by Ukraine’s Western allies.

But a Western official has suggested Ukraine could feasibly strike Russian targets around the nuclear plant because it is built to withstand terror attacks, including by aircraft.

Rafael Mariano Grossi: ‘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 ...’ Credit: Justin Lane/Shutterstock

Kyiv last month used US-supplied kamikaze drones to strike Russian weapons and troops sheltering between the plant’s cooling towers, some 150 yards from a reactor.

The European Union hit out at Russia on Saturday over the shelling.

“The EU condemns Russia’s military activities around #Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, wrote on Twitter.

“This is a serious and irresponsible breach of nuclear safety rules and another example of Russia’s disregard for international norms.”

Mr Borrell said the IAEA should be given access to the plant.

The agency has been trying for weeks to send a team to inspect the plant. Ukraine has so far rejected the efforts, which it says would legitimise Russia’s occupation of the site in the eyes of the international community.