Fears of a catastrophic accident at one of Europe’s largest nuclear power plants escalated on Thursday after fires sparked by repeated shelling led to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia reactor complex being cut off from the country’s electric grid.
Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, said the temporary interruption was the first time the plant had ever been disconnected from the grid. But it added that there were “no concerns” over a full-scale accident after back-up systems kicked in.
Kyiv and Moscow have accused each other of conducting artillery shelling in the vicinity of the plant, which is based in the town of Energodar in southern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s forces occupied the facility early in its invasion, which began six months ago, and workers now operate under Russian supervision.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, discussed the rising concerns about Zaporizhzhia in a phone call on Thursday with Joe Biden, his US counterpart. They called on Russia to return full control of the plant to Kyiv and allow international inspectors to access the facility.
In a video address on Thursday night, Zelenskyy said that while back-up diesel generators successfully provided emergency power to the station after shelling damaged connections to the power grid, the plant came perilously close to a “radiation accident”.
“The world must understand what a threat this is: if the diesel generators did not turn on, if the automation and our station staff did not work after the blackout, then we would already be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” Zelenskyy said, adding that the international community “must act faster” to prevent a catastrophe.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said Ukrainian authorities had notified it about the temporary lost connection of “its last remaining operational 750 kilovolt external power line”.
“Almost every day there is a new incident at or near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. We can’t afford to lose any more time,” said IAEA general director Rafael Grossi. “I’m determined to personally lead an IAEA mission to the plant in the next few days to help stabilise the nuclear safety and security situation there.”
Grossi met with Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday, where the president of France offered his government’s support for a mission to inspect the plant.
“We are very concerned about any of the activities that are taking place, particularly since we do not have adequate access to see what is actually taking place and what can be the immediate impact of what’s going on there,” said Bonnie Jenkins, the US state department’s top arms control official.
Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said the nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe by power-generating capacity, was repeatedly disconnected and reconnected with the power grid on Thursday.
Energoatom said the other lines connecting the plant with Ukraine’s grid were damaged earlier in Russia’s invasion.
According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-imposed official in the occupied regions of Zaporizhzhia, told the country’s state television channel the incident did not pose a threat to the nuclear reactors.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence on Thursday tweeted: “Russia is probably prepared to exploit any Ukrainian military activity near [Zaporizhzhia] for propaganda purposes.”