KYIV, Ukraine – In the early days of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces seized control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after a fierce battle in which shrapnel hit the containment structure of reactor No. 1. The resulting fire was quickly extinguished, a thick wall blocked a breach, and over the next five months the war and global attention shifted to new fronts, new outrages and new horrors.
The war has had no shortage of devastation and global repercussions – shifting geopolitical alliances, hunger in Africa exacerbated by missing grain exports, massacres of Ukrainian civilians, mass migrations and massive losses of Ukrainian and Russian troops. Yet in particular, the repeated shelling of the sprawling Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in recent days has sparked widespread fear and outrage at the sheer folly and existential danger of turning Europe’s largest nuclear power plant into a theater of war.
Speaking to a nation that still bears the scars of the nuclear disaster of the Chernobyl facility collapse in 1986, President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke late Thursday night, saying the Kremlin was engaged in “unconcealed nuclear blackmail” and called the situation at the factory “one of the greatest crimes committed by the terrorist state.”
Neither side has any interest in a meltdown, which in the worst case could lead to widespread releases of deadly radioactive material, polluting territory that stretched for hundreds of thousands of miles, no matter how the wind blew.
“The degree of infection of other areas of Ukraine and Europe, Russia and Belarus depends on the wind direction,” said Ukraine’s State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management, which oversees the wasteland that still surrounds Chernobyl.
The plant’s reactors are designed to withstand a range of risks, from plane crashes to natural disasters. But direct hits from missiles and missiles may be another matter. Ukraine has so far resisted firing back the factory of US-supplied advanced missile systems, for fear of hitting one of its six pressurized water reactors or high-level waste in storage.
But experts expressed even more concern about fire damage if a shell hit a transformer at one of the reactors. That can do the electrical network offline, potentially causing a breakdown in the plant’s cooling system and leading to a catastrophic meltdown, said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear energy expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Each side blames the other for endangering the safety of the plant.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian troops of using the factory as a missile rallying point on the town of Nikopol on the western bank of the Dnipro River.
On Friday, days after at least 13 people were killed in shelling, more rockets fell, injuring three people, including a 12-year-old boy, and damaging four high-rise buildings and numerous homes and shops, a regional official said. It was not clear whether the attacks came from the Zaporizhzhya factory overnight.
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The Ukrainians have also accused the Russians of hiding dozens of military vehicles with an unknown amount of ammunition on the site of at least two reactors. The Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, they say, is advising Russian troops on which parts of the factory site to fire on deliberately without posing a security risk, with the idea of intimidating the world by creating a sense of danger (while blaming the Ukrainians ).
Russian officials have said the Ukrainians are the ones trying to make a “dirty bomb” in the Russian-controlled area by targeting the waste storage facility, and have claimed that Russian air defense systems had warded off Ukrainian drone and artillery attacks on the plant. .
Rafael M. Grossi, the secretary-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said there was “no imminent threat” for the time being from the recent shelling, but warned that the assessment would “at any time can change. ”
While under Russian control, the facility is operated by approximately 10,000 Ukrainian citizens, who: are tasked with keeping the plant safely inside while facing hard conditions, including intimidation and torture with electric shocks, according to Ukrainian officials.
“People are being kidnapped en masse,” Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar, said last month during a meeting with officials from Energoatom, the state agency that oversees Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. “The whereabouts of some of them are unknown. The rest are in very difficult circumstances: they are tortured and physically and morally abused.”
According to a Ukrainian energy official, ten workers are still missing, who could only talk about factory safety on condition of anonymity. That includes the head of the facility’s environmental protection service, Ihor Kvashnin, according to Energoatom.
The war shows no signs of abating, at the nuclear site or anywhere else along the southern and eastern front lines.
On Friday, a senior Ukrainian official suggested that the death toll from explosions at an air base in Crimea this week was much higher than previous estimates. That further contradicted a Russian claim of more limited compensation. Images released by satellite imaging company Planet Labs appear to show at least eight wrecked warplanes and three blast craters in areas where planes were parked near the runways. Russia had used the site as a launch pad for military operations since the invasion of Ukraine began in late February.
Ukrainian official Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to the interior minister, said 60 pilots and technicians had been killed and 100 injured when a series of explosions shook the Saki field on the western Black Sea coast on Tuesday. He said the conclusion was based on video evidence and intelligence data, but he did not provide further details.
There is no independent confirmation of the toll and most experts have focused on assessing damage to Russian military equipment. Russian authorities have said the ammunition stored at the site exploded and denied that any aircraft had been destroyed.
A senior Ukrainian official has said the explosions were an attack carried out with the help of partisans, resistance fighters who assist the Ukrainian army in Russian-occupied territory. But the Kiev government has been reluctant to specify how the explosions took place, or elaborate on their responsibility.
Mr. Zelensky warned officials against: revealing details of attacks carried out by his troops, or bragging rights.
“War is certainly not the time for vanity and loud statements,” he said in the comments, which made no reference to the explosion at the airbase. “The less concrete details you give about our defense plans, the better it will be for the execution of those defense plans.”
Also on Friday, a UN chartered bulk carrier, the Brave Commander, arrived in Ukraine to transport 23,000 tons of grain to famine-ravaged parts of the Horn of Africa, the first to the region since the Russian invasion cut food exports six months ago. António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, who last month signed a deal between Ukraine and Russia that would allow grain shipments, called it “a beacon of relief”.
Instead, the nuclear power plant has emerged as a generator of global fear.
On Wednesday, foreign ministers from the Group of 7 Major Industrialized Countries issued a statement from their meeting in Germany to demand that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine and immediately return control of the nuclear complex to Ukraine.
The statement blamed Russian military actions around the plant for “significantly increasing the risk of a nuclear accident or incident”, endangering the entire region.
On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said the United States supported a demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plant and called on Russia to cease military operations on the grounds or near it.
Ukraine has tried to respond to the constant shelling of the factory with precise counter-attacks. For example, on July 22, Ukrainian military intelligence reported an attack by a kamikaze drone that blew up an anti-aircraft installation and a Grad missile launcher, killing soldiers in a tent camp about 150 meters from a reactor.
Marc Santora reported from Kiev and Jason Horowitz from Rome. William J. Broad contributed from New York.