Rocket attacks at Zaporizhzhia power plant raise fears of ‘nuclear catastrophe’

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s nuclear power company warned Sunday that rocket attacks on the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant threatened a “nuclear catastrophe” as the governments of Russia and Ukraine blamed the explosions at the facility.

For days, experts have warned that intense fighting around the Zaporizhia plant in southeastern Ukraine poses a serious threat, but Saturday’s alleged strike near the plant’s spent-fuel storage facility suggested an even greater threat.

“This is particularly dangerous because these buildings are not constructed of reinforced concrete like reactor containment buildings,” said Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “These places were not designed as fortifications against external missile or artillery attacks.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for a “strong response from the international community” after the attacks and has spoken to European Council President Charles Michel about further sanctions on Moscow’s nuclear industry. He accused the Kremlin of waging “nuclear terror”.

The Russian-installed local government of Enrhodar, where the plant is located, accused Ukraine of attacking the facility using a 220mm Uragan multiple rocket launcher system.

“Administrative buildings and the area adjacent to the storage facility were damaged,” a statement to Interfax News said.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said the situation posed a grave threat to public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond its borders.

On Sunday, he demanded permission to visit the site with a team of nuclear experts. “We can put together a security, safety and security mission and provide the indispensable assistance and impartial assessment that is needed,” he said in a statement.

But the prospect of an immediate meeting appeared remote as fighting intensified in the disputed area.

The firing also damaged radiation-monitoring sensors at the facility and injured at least one worker, Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said.

“A nuclear disaster was miraculously averted this time, but miracles don’t last forever,” the company said in a statement on Sunday.

At least 174 containers of spent nuclear fuel are stored at the site, which is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. According to Energoatom, the container was “specifically targeted” by the Russian military.

The Zaporizhia plant has been under Russian control since March, but is run by Ukrainian workers.

According to the company, technological losses at the facility mean it is “not yet possible to detect and respond in a timely manner in the event of worsening radiation conditions or radiation leakage from spent nuclear fuel containers,” it said.

Russia originally seized the facility after one of its launches sparked a fire at the plant’s complex, raising concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s four nuclear sites that have been in place for months.

Experts say there is no precedent in military history for such an ongoing battle.

“This is the first time in the history of the nuclear age that a large nuclear power facility has been in the middle of an active war zone for an extended period of time,” Kimball said.

He warned that the loss of power at the plant also posed a significant risk. “Each of these power plants has certain days for which they have backup diesel power generation,” he said.

Zelensky cited another reason for Friday’s attack on Zaporizhia to recognize Moscow as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” something he has repeatedly called for since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the plant was not heavily damaged due to defenses by Russian-backed forces.

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Hassan reports from London. Praveena Somasundaram in Washington contributed to this report.

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