Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the world narrowly avoided a “radioactive disaster” as the last regular line supplying power to Ukraine’s Russian-owned Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was restored hours after being cut by bombing.
The President of Ukraine said that officials from the International Atomic Energy (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, needs emergency access to the site.
Zelenskiy blamed Russian military shelling on Thursday for fires in the ash pits of a nearby coal-fired power plant that disconnected the reactor complex, the largest such facility in Europe, from the power grid. He said backup diesel generators provided power and protected the plant.
“If our station staff had not reacted after the blackout, we would have already been forced to overcome the consequences of a radiological accident,” he said in an evening speech. “Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation close to a radioactive disaster.
IAEA officials should have access to the site within days, he said, “before the occupants bring the situation to the point of no return”.
Negotiations are underway 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 across the continent.
Ukraine’s nuclear company Energoatom said Thursday’s incident marked the first complete disconnection of the plant in nearly 40 years of operation. Electricity is used for cooling and security systems.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, seized the plant in March and has controlled it ever since, although Ukrainian technicians still operate it.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of bombing the site, fueling fears of a nuclear disaster. The White House called Russia to agree to a demilitarized zone around the plant, after Joe Biden spoke to Zelenskiy on Thursday.
The US State Department has also warned Russia against redirecting energy from the site.
“The electricity it produces rightfully belongs to Ukraine and any attempt to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and redirect it 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 effort to militarize or divert power from the plant.”
The IAEA said Ukraine informed it that the plant had temporarily lost connection, “further underscoring the urgent need for an IAEA expert mission to visit the facility.”
“We can’t afford to waste any more time. I am determined to personally lead an IAEA mission to the plant in the coming days,” said the organization’s director general, Rafael Grossi.
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 region lost power for several hours on Thursday.
“It was caused by the disconnection of power lines from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as a result of provocations by Zelenskiy fighters,” Rogov said. “The disconnection itself was triggered by a fire and a short circuit on the power lines.”
Nuclear experts have warned of the risk of damage to spent nuclear fuel pools at the plant or its reactors. Power cuts needed to cool the pools could cause a disastrous collapse.
The international community is increasingly concerned safety in the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. It has been occupied by Russian forces since the start of the war, and they now use it to house military vehicles and equipment.
The complex supplied more than 20% of Ukraine’s electricity needs and its loss would place further pressure on the government.
The boss of Energoatom told the Guardian Wednesday that Russian engineers had drawn up a plan to permanently disconnect the plant from the national grid and connect it to the Russian power grid instead. Petro Kotin said the plan was apparently aimed at maintaining power to the plant if all connections to Ukraine were cut off by fighting, as they were on Thursday. But Ukraine fears that Russia is deliberately cutting the lines.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have reached a relative stalemate in recent months, in part after the West supplied new long-range missiles that hampered Russia’s supply lines and its ability to continue its offensives. Ukraine says it also lacks the weapons to launch a decisive counter-offensive.
With Reuters and Agence France-Presse