September 24, 2022

Ukraine accused Russian forces on Sunday of endangering a seized nuclear power plant, saying a catastrophic radiation leak was “miraculously averted” after rockets landed on the site. It was the latest threat to Europe’s largest nuclear facility, where fighting in the southern region has sparked fears of a major accident.

The missiles fired Saturday night struck near a dry spent fuel storage facility containing 174 barrels, each with 24 spent nuclear fuel assemblies, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power company. One person was injured by shrapnel and several windows were damaged in the attack, which a pro-Russian regional official attributed to Ukrainian forces.

Russian forces have controlled the Zaporizhzhia plant since March, using it as a base to launch artillery barrages on the Ukrainian-controlled city of Nikopol across the Dnipro River last month. Saturday’s attack included a volley of rockets that Ukrainian officials said destroyed 47 apartment buildings and houses, adding that Ukraine cannot respond to the attacks for fear that a counterattack would cause radioactive fallout.

The stakes became clearer on Saturday night.

“Apparently, they specifically targeted the barrels of spent fuel, which are stored in the countryside near the bombing site,” Energoatom said in a Telegram post. Three radiation detection monitors at the site were damaged, making it “currently impossible” to detect and respond to a radiation leak in time, the post said.

“There are still risks of hydrogen leakage and release of radioactive substances, and the risk of fire is also high,” the nuclear power company said in an earlier post.

The fighting, along with Russia’s occupation of parts of the plant and stress on plant workers, prompted Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, to warn last week that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated.”

Conditions at the plant are “out of control,” he added in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Russia responded to Ukraine’s claims on Sunday. The head of the pro-Russian administration in Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, wrote on Telegram, a messaging platform, that Ukrainian forces had used a Uragan cargo missile – a type of cluster weapon – to target the spent fuel storage area and destroy administrative buildings. Russia’s defense ministry has previously blamed Ukraine for an attack on the plant, saying on Thursday that Ukraine carried out an artillery strike against it.

But Ukraine insisted Russia was to blame. During a national television call-in program on Sunday, the head of Ukraine’s regional military command, Oleksandr Starukh, said there was only a three-second delay between the launch and unloading of each shell — proof, he said, that the attack had done by Russian forces nearby.

Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has made it a priority to seize critical infrastructure such as power plants, ports, transportation, and agricultural storage and production facilities. It has also targeted infrastructure in Ukrainian hands.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Intelligence Directorate, Andriy Yusov, said Russia was bombing the Zaporizhia region to destroy infrastructure and destroy power lines that supply electricity to Ukraine’s national grid and ultimately cut off power in the south. of the country. There has been no independent confirmation of his claim.

Mr Yusov told Telegram that Russian forces had also mined the plant’s power plants.

Concern over security in Zaporizhzhia has been heightened since March, when a fire broke out in one of its buildings during fighting as Russian forces took control. Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces have since stockpiled weapons, including artillery, at the plant. in recent weeks, they began shelling Nikopolis from its territories.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of setting off explosions at the plant in order to unnerve Ukraine’s European allies over nuclear security and perhaps discourage them from further arming Ukraine.

The danger the plant could pose to the entire continent is yet another example of war’s potential to strike parts of the world far beyond the battlefield.

Since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s grain has all but disappeared from the world market, contributing to inflated global food prices and putting millions at risk of starvation. A five-month shortage has just begun to ease with an agreement last month to allow Ukrainian agricultural products to leave embargoed ports.

Four ships carrying more than 160,000 metric tons, or about 176,000 US tons, of sunflower oil, corn and flour sailed from Ukrainian ports on Sunday as part of the deal, the United Nations said. But experts have warned that the global food crisis could drag on for years, fueled by the ongoing effects of various wars, the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.

The war in Ukraine has also pushed the world back into the all-too-familiar Cold War politics, with the United States and its Western allies aligning themselves against Russia, China and others, leaving many less powerful countries trapped.

The divide appeared once again on Sunday when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in South Africa, becoming the third high-ranking American official to visit Africa in two weeks. Mr. Blinken’s visit comes hot on the heels of a charm-offensive tour of African countries by his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, in which Mr. Lavrov denied responsibility for the food shortage.

So far, there are no reports of a radioactive leak in Zaporizhzhia. But the prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to reclaim land in Kherson province, which lies southwest of Zaporizhia, is also heightening instability around the plant.

Ukraine was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl reactor fire in the country’s north, which spread deadly radiation across the region and put Europe at risk.

Chernobyl, too, has seen fighting this year. But the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mr Grossi said he was far more concerned about Zaporizhia, noting that while his agency had been able to restore sensors and continue regular inspections at Chernobyl, Russian occupation and ongoing bombing of Zaporizhia they prevented the guard from accessing key parts of her reactors.

Russia’s occupation of the plant has put a lot of pressure on its employees, Energoatom said, as Russian forces hunting saboteurs have subjected them to harsh interrogations that include torture with electric shocks, Ukrainian officials say. The exiled mayor of the nearby town of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, said some workers were missing and at least one was killed.

Acute stress, Ukrainian officials warn, makes it more likely that workers will make a mistake that could lead to an accident.

Matthew Boke Big, Emma Boubola and Ruth Maclean contributed to the report.

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