Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said the world narrowly avoided a “radiation disaster” as the last regular line supplying electricity to Ukraine’s Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was restored hours after being cut by shelling.
The Ukrainian president said officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, must be given urgent access to the site.
Zelenskiy blamed shelling on Thursday by Russia’s military for fires in the ash pits of a nearby coal power station that disconnected the reactor complex, Europe’s largest such facility, from the power grid. He said back-up diesel generators ensured power supply and kept the plant safe.
“If our station staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would have already been forced to overcome the consequences of a radiation accident,” he said in an evening address. “Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster.”
IAEA officials should be given access to the site within days, he said, “before the occupiers take the situation to the point of no return”.
Negotiations are under way for the UN’s nuclear watchdog to visit the site, and Ukraine’s top nuclear official told the Guardian that IAEA inspectors could arrive by the end of the month.
Until then, continued fighting puts the plant, and potentially much of Europe, at risk. A nuclear accident could spread radiation far across the continent.
Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said Thursday’s incident represented the plant’s first complete disconnection in its nearly 40 years of operation. Electricity is used for cooling and safety systems.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, captured the plant in March and has controlled it since, although Ukrainian technicians still operate it.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the site, fueling fears of a nuclear disaster. The White House called on Russia to agree to a demilitarized zone around the plant, after Joe Biden spoke to Zelenskiy on Thursday.
The US state department also cautioned Russia against redirecting energy from the site.
“The electricity that it produces rightly belongs to Ukraine and any attempt to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and redirect to occupied areas is unacceptable,” spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters. “No country should turn a nuclear power plant into an active war zone and we oppose any Russian efforts to weaponize or divert energy from the plant.”
The IAEA said Ukraine had informed it the plant temporarily lost connection, “further underlining the urgent need for an IAEA expert mission to travel to the facility”.
“We can’t afford to lose any more time. I’m determined to personally lead an IAEA mission to the plant in the next few days,” the organization’s director general, Rafael Grossi, said.
Writing on Telegram, Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in the occupied town of Enerhodar near the plant, said satellite photos showed the local forest in flames. He said towns in the area lost power for several hours on Thursday.
“This was caused by the disconnection of power lines from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station as a result of provocations by Zelenskiy’s fighters,” Rogov claimed. “The disconnection itself was triggered by a fire and short circuit on the power lines.”
Nuclear experts have warned of the risk of damage to the plant’s spent nuclear fuel pools or its reactors. Cuts in the power needed to cool the pools could cause a disastrous meltdown.
There have been growing international concerns about safety at Europe’s largest nuclear plant. It has been occupied by Russian forces since the start of the war, and they are now using it to house military vehicles and equipment.
The complex supplied more than 20% of Ukraine’s electricity needs and its loss would pile new strain on the government.
The head of Energoatom’s told the Guardian on Wednesday that Russian engineers had drawn up a blueprint to permanently disconnect the plant from the national grid and connect it to the Russian power network instead. Petro Kotin said the plan was ostensibly aimed at maintaining power supply to the plant if all connections to Ukraine were cut off by fighting, as they were on Thursday. But Ukraine fears Russia may deliberately cut the lines.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have reached a relative stalemate in recent months, partly after the west supplied new long-range missiles that have hampered Russia’s supply lines and ability to continue with its offensives. Ukraine says it also does not have the weapons it needs to launch a decisive counteroffensive.
With Reuters and Agence France-Presse