DRUZHKOVKA, Ukraine — Fighting erupted on Saturday near a sprawling nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings from nuclear watchdogs earlier this week that conditions there were dangerous and “out of control.”
The Russian military used the Zaporozhye plant, the largest in Europe, as a base to attack the Ukrainian-controlled city of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, a volley of Grad missiles damaged 11 apartment buildings and 36 private houses. and wounded three people, the Ukrainian military said.
The assault also cut off electricity, water and natural gas in the city as residents fled the shelling and the associated risk of radiation, the Ukrainian military said.
About a month ago, Russian forces began shelling the station, and the Ukrainian military said they could not fire back for fear they could hit the reactor at the station, causing a radiation disaster.
Ukraine has also accused the Russians of orchestrating the explosions at nuclear power plants in order to worry European allies about nuclear safety and prevent Ukraine from arming.
The Zaporizhzhya plant occupies a dangerous place on the wide Dnieper, on the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controls the western bank, while the Russians have fortified themselves around the plant on the eastern bank of the river.
The fighting near the nuclear plant comes amid ongoing clashes elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank attacks on the eastern town of Bakhmut, which has seen some of the most intense fighting on the front in recent days.
The Ukrainian military continued to strike targets far behind the Russian front line, hoping to destroy ammunition and fuel stockpiles. American-supplied HIMARS missiles helped turn the tide of the war, and on Friday Ukraine struck three command posts and six ammunition depots at various positions behind enemy lines along the front line, the statement said.
Outrage over nuclear security violations – Rafael Grossi, head of the UN Office for Nuclear Oversight, said on Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” – has done nothing to force the Russian army out of the facility, and fighting continues daily, with explosions on Friday morning. Mr. Grossi called conditions at the plant “out of control.”
Mr. Grossi said he was much more worried about Zaporozhye than he was about Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, which was radiating outward and threatening Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think we’re fine,” Mr. Grossi said, noting that his agency regularly inspected the nuclear power plant and rebuilt radiation monitors and other detection devices.
But the IAEA has been unable to gain access to key parts of the Zaporozhye reactors, as Russian occupying forces and surrounding shelling make it too dangerous for inspectors. This raises the possibility that if the site is damaged, it will be difficult to assess the danger at best, he added.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
In a statement released on Saturday, Ukrainian state-owned nuclear company Energoatam said Russian soldiers have taken over basements at the plant and are not allowing employees to take shelter in them despite the risks associated with fighting in the area. “People have no shelter and are in danger,” the statement said.
The blocking of access to the shelters is linked to other psychological stress for Ukrainian workers at the control room and other station staff, who were subjected to harsh interrogations, including electric shocks, according to Ukrainian officials. The tension creates the risk of accidents due to human error, officials said.
Friday’s explosions destroyed high-voltage electrical wires, forcing Ukrainian workers to cut power at one of the plant’s six reactors. The other two were already idle, and the third was under scheduled maintenance.
Later that day, a second series of explosions damaged a building on the site of the nuclear power plant, according to the State Atomic Energy Company of Ukraine. The company said the bombings were carried out by Russia; The Russian military said the attacks came from the Ukrainian side.
In his late-night address to Ukrainians on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky underlined what he called the “brazen crime” of the Russian military using the nuclear power plant as cover.
“The occupiers have created another extremely risky situation for everyone in Europe,” Mr. Zelenskiy said, citing explosions at a factory earlier in the day. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. And any shelling of this object is an open, brazen crime, an act of terror.”
Mr. Zelenskiy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak was even more direct about the risk in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting that any day there could be a catastrophe emitting radiation over Europe.
“This morning in Europe became possible precisely because the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant miraculously did not explode yesterday,” he wrote, using the abbreviation for the nuclear power plant. He proposed that the United Nations negotiate the withdrawal of the Russians from the plant, which would place the site under the control of an independent “special commission”.
Western countries have imposed tough sanctions on Russia for its war with Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky has urged them to extend them to Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom. the company has signed contracts with dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey and Finland, for the design and construction of nuclear power plants
“This is purely a security issue,” Mr. Zelenskiy said. “Whoever poses a nuclear threat to other nations is definitely incapable of using nuclear technology safely.”
Mr. Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “threatens one of the world’s largest nuclear power programs.” noting numerous safety violations at the Zaporozhye plant and calling the situation “out of control.”
“Inaction is shameless,” he said. “If an accident occurs at the Zaporozhye NPP, we will not blame the natural disaster. We will only answer to ourselves.”
Placing military hardware at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage, Ukrainian army commanders and civilian officials say.
According to Dmitry Orlov, the mayor of Energodar, the city where the nuclear power plant is located, Russia parked an armored personnel carrier and trucks in the engine room of reactor No. 1.
According to Mr. Orlov, Russia is placing rocket launchers between the reactor buildings. The military intelligence service of Ukraine said it hit one of them. unmanned munitions in July.
Russia’s use of the facility for military purposes is also meant to signal the dangers of continuing Western policy of arming Ukraine, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine said in a statement.
The Council’s Center for Countering Disinformation defined the goal as increasing “the fear in Europe of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe and reducing the desire of Western countries to provide military assistance.”
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.