Ukraine on edge as shellfire rings out around Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine, August 4, 2022.

Alexander Ermoshenko | Reuters

Shellfire at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine fueled fears of a major disaster as both sides continued to blame the other, while Russian forces targeted towns in the other side of the river from the largest atomic power station in Europe.

Despite the danger, officials from the United Nations nuclear watchdog were still awaiting permission to visit the factory on the southern front line of the war.

Standing next to a crater at a school that had been largely reduced to rubble, Zaporizhzhia region governor Oleksandr Starukh told Ukrainian television that people were being told how to apply iodine in the event of a radioactive leak.

He was speaking in the town of Zaporizhzhia, a two-hour drive from the factory, which sits along the vast Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnipro River.

Russian forces seized the plant since early March shortly after invading Ukraine, while Ukrainian personnel continue to operate it. In recent weeks, the two countries have swapped responsibility for the bombings near the plant.

Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom said Russian troops had shelled the complex’s grounds again in the past 24 hours. “The damage is being assessed,” Energoatom wrote in a statement on Telegram.

Moscow’s Defense Ministry on Saturday accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the factory complex three times in 24 hours. He said in a statement that 17 shells were fired, four of which hit the roof of a building storing “168 US Westinghouse nuclear fuel assemblies”.

He said 10 shells exploded near a dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and three near a building that houses fresh nuclear fuel storage. He said the radiation situation at the factory remained normal.

Reuters could not verify either party’s report.

Overview of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and fires, in Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, August 24, 2022.

European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 Imagery | via Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday the situation in Zaporizhzhia remained “very risky” after two of its six reactors were reconnected to the grid following bombings that caused the nuclear power plant to go offline for the first time.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said on Thursday that the UN agency was “very, very close” to being able to send officials to inspect the plant.

Energoatom’s statement on Saturday said its staff at the plant had come under “increased pressure” ahead of the likely visit, “to suppress their testimony about the crimes of the station’s occupants and use it as a military base.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this month called for the withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the plant to ensure it is not a target.

On the bank opposite the Zaporizhzhia plant, the towns of Nikopol and Marhanets were hit by shells on Saturday afternoon and in the evening, Nikopol Mayor Yevhen Yevtushenko said on Telegram.

The fighting rages on

Further south, Russian forces were trying to resist a Ukrainian counteroffensive centered around Kherson, the first major city to be captured after the invasion was launched six months ago.

Ukrainian strategy has focused on destroying four bridges that Russian forces must hold to supply Kherson, at the southern end of the Dnipro.

Vladimir Leontyev, the Russian-appointed leader of the Kherson region, told Russian news agency TASS that Ukrainian forces again shelled the Kakhovsky Bridge over a hydroelectric dam.

Ukraine’s Southern Command on Sunday claimed successful artillery and missile attacks in the area, which it said killed 35 Russians and destroyed a howitzer, a self-propelled artillery gun and nine armored and other vehicles.

“Two ammunition depots and a field supply point were also destroyed,” he added.

Donbass facade

On Ukraine’s eastern front, the defenders continued to thwart Russian attempts to break through around the strategic town of Bakhmut to extend their control over the Donbass region.

After taking Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk a few weeks ago, Russian forces have focused on Bakhmut. The city, which was home to 80,000 people before the war, was shelled again on Saturday, as were nearby Soldedar and Zaitsevo, according to a Ukrainian military report.

He said Ukraine had halted its advances near two other major cities, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

The Ukrainian military also said its forces standing in the coal town of Avdiivka managed to repel a Russian assault despite enemy artillery and airstrikes.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a daily briefing that it had destroyed a major ammunition depot in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region that contained US-made HIMARS rocket systems and M777 howitzer shells.

The Russian Air Force shot down a MiG-29 aircraft in the Donetsk region of the Donbass, the ministry said, and destroyed six missile and artillery weapons depots in the Donetsk, Mykolaiv and Kherson.

Reuters could not verify these accounts.

President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Russia’s neighbor on February 24, saying a “special operation” was needed to demilitarize the country and eliminate perceived security threats to Russia.

Ukraine and the West dismissed this as a baseless pretext for a war of imperialist conquest.

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