Shell impact near nuclear power plant; Power outages sweep through Ukraine

Kyiv, Ukraine — Violent explosions from shells rocked Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the global nuclear watchdog said on Sunday, calling for “urgent action to prevent a nuclear accident” at the Russian-held facility.

A heavy barrage of Russian military strikes – nearly 400 on Sunday alone – also hit Ukraine’s eastern regions, and bitter ground fighting rocked eastern Donetsk province, Ukraine’s president said in his evening update.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said multiple explosions near the plant — on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning — abruptly ended a period of relative calm around the nuclear facility, which has been the scene of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops since the invasion Russia on February 24th.

The fighting has raised the specter of a nuclear catastrophe since Russian troops seized the power station in the early days of the war.

With renewed shelling both nearby and at the site, IAEA experts at the Zaporizhzhia facility reported hearing more than a dozen blasts in a short space of time Sunday morning and saw some blasts from their windows, the agency said.

Later in the day, the IAEA said the shelling had stopped and that its experts would assess the situation on Monday.

“There was damage to parts of the site, but no radiation release or power outage,” the agency said.

Nonetheless, Grossi described the shelling as “extremely worrying” and called on both sides to urgently set up a nuclear containment zone around the facility.

“Whoever is behind this needs to stop immediately,” he said. “Like I’ve said many times before, you’re playing with fire!”

Russia has bombed Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air, causing widespread power outages and leaving millions of Ukrainians without heat, electricity or water while freezing cold and snow blankets the capital Kyiv and other cities.

Ukraine’s state nuclear operator Energoatom said Russian forces were behind the shelling of the Zaporizhia plant and the targeted equipment was in line with the Kremlin’s intention to “damage or destroy as much of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as possible” when the winter uses.

The weekend’s strikes damaged the system that would allow units 5 and 6 to produce electricity for Ukraine again, the power operator said. Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Agency hopes to bring the two units to a minimally controlled power level to conserve steam, which is critical to ensuring the safety of the plant and the surrounding area during winter, Energoatom said.

Moscow, meanwhile, blamed the Ukrainian armed forces for the damage. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov accused Ukrainians of shelling the power plant twice on Sunday and said two shells fell near power lines that supply electricity to the power plant.