Druzhkivka, Ukraine — Fighting raged on Saturday near a sprawling nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings from nuclear safety bodies earlier this week that conditions there were dangerous and “out of control.”
The Russian military is using the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest, as a base to attack the Ukrainian-controlled city of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, it fired a volley of Grad rockets that damaged 11 apartment buildings and 36 private homes. and wounded three people, the Ukrainian military said.
The attack knocked out electricity, water and gas supplies in the city, where residents fled artillery fire and the risk of radiation, the Ukrainian military said.
Russian forces began firing artillery attacks from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military has said it cannot retaliate because of concerns it would hit a reactor at the plant, causing a radioactive fallout.
Ukraine also accused the Russians of setting off explosions at the plant to unnerve European allies over nuclear security and deter Ukraine’s equipment.
The Zaporizhzhia plant occupies a dangerous position on the wide Dnipro River, along the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian Army controls the west bank, while the Russians are entrenched around the factory on the east bank of the river.
The fighting near the nuclear plant came as fighting continued elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank attacks on the eastern town of Bakhmut, the site of some of the fiercest fighting along the front in recent days.
The Ukrainian military continued to strike targets far behind Russia’s front lines, hoping to cut off supplies of ammunition and fuel. American-supplied HIMARS missiles helped turn the tide of the war, and on Friday Ukraine hit three command posts and six ammunition depots at various locations behind enemy lines along the front, it said in a statement.
Outrage over the nuclear safety violations — Raphael Grossi, the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, said on Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” — did nothing to dissuade the Russian military from the site, and the fighting continued daily, with explosions early Friday afternoon. Mr. Grossi called conditions at the plant “out of control.”
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Mr Grossi said he was far more worried about Zaporizhia than Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, which irradiated the surrounding area and endangered Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think we’re fine,” Mr. Grossi said, noting that his agency had regularly inspected the plant and restored sensors to monitor radiation and other detection devices.
However, the IAEA has been unable to access key parts of the reactors in Zaporizhia, as Russian occupation forces and the surrounding shelling make it too dangerous for inspectors. That raises the prospect that if damage is done to the facility, it can be difficult, at best, to assess the risk, he added.
In a statement issued on Saturday, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Enerhoatam, said Russian soldiers had taken over the plant’s basements and were preventing employees from escaping, despite the dangers of fighting in the area. “People have no shelter and are at risk,” the statement said.
Blocking access to the shelters comes on top of other psychological pressures on Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room and other plant employees, who have been subjected to harsh interrogations, including electric shock torture, according to Ukrainian officials. The tension poses risks of accidents due to human error, officials said.
The explosions on Friday damaged high-voltage power lines, forcing Ukrainian workers to cut output at one of the plant’s six reactors. Two others had already been idled and a third was undergoing routine maintenance.
Later in the day, a second series of explosions damaged a building on the plant’s premises, according to Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company. The company said Russia orchestrated the blasts. The Russian military said the attacks came from the Ukrainian side.
In his nightly address to Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday highlighted what he called the “brazen crime” of the Russian military using the nuclear plant as cover.
“The occupiers have created another extremely dangerous situation for everyone in Europe,” Mr Zelenskiy said, citing explosions earlier in the day at the plant. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. And any bombing of this facility is an open, brazen crime, an act of terror.”
An adviser to Mr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, dealt with the risk even more bluntly in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting a radiation-emitting disaster in Europe could happen any day.
“This morning in Europe was made possible only because the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant miraculously did not explode yesterday,” he wrote, using an abbreviation for the nuclear plant. He suggested that the United Nations should negotiate a Russian withdrawal from the plant that would put the site under the control of an independent “special committee.”
Western countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine, and Mr Zelensky has called on them to extend them to Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom. The the company has signed contracts with dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey and Finland, to design and build nuclear power plants
“This is purely a matter of security,” Mr Zelensky said. “He who poses nuclear threats to other nations is certainly not capable of using nuclear technologies safely.”
Mr Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “threatened one of the largest nuclear energy programs in the world”. noting multiple security breaches at the Zaporizhzhia plant and describing the situation as “out of control”.
“Inaction is unconscious,” he said. “If an accident happens at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, we will not be responsible for a natural disaster. We will only have ourselves to answer.”
Basing military equipment at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage, Ukrainian military commanders and civilian officials say.
Russia has stationed an armored personnel carrier and trucks in an engine room of reactor No. 1, according to Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the nuclear plant is located.
Russia is placing missile launchers between the reactor buildings, Mr. Orlov said. Ukraine’s military intelligence claimed it hit one on one drone ammunition in July.
Russia’s use of the site for military purposes is also intended to signal the danger of continued Western political arming of Ukraine, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said in a statement.
The Council’s Center for Countering Disinformation identified as a target the growing “fear in Europe of the possibility of nuclear catastrophe and the declining willingness of Western countries to provide military assistance.”
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Weston, Vt.