Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Powerful 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.
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.
Several of the plant’s buildings, systems and equipment — none critical to the plant’s nuclear safety — were damaged, the IAEA said, citing management.
Still, Grossi described reports of the shelling as “extremely disturbing” and called on both sides to establish a nuclear safe zone around the facility as a matter of urgency.
“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 for millions of Ukrainians in freezing weather. That has left Ukrainians without heat, electricity or water while the capital Kyiv and other cities are blanketed in snow.
Ukraine’s state nuclear power plant operator said Russian forces were behind the shelling of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. Energoatom said on Sunday that the targeted equipment there is consistent with the Kremlin’s intention to “damage or destroy as much of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as possible” when winter sets in.
The weekend’s strikes damaged the system that would allow units 5 and 6 to produce electricity for Ukraine again, the power operator said. It listed chemically desalinated water storage tanks and a steam generator flushing system as damaged on Sunday, although the full extent of the damage was still being assessed.
Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Agency has decided 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 surrounding areas during winter, Energoatom said.
However, Moscow blamed the Ukrainian armed forces. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov accused Ukrainians of shelling the power plant twice on Sunday. He also said two shells fell near power lines that supply power to the plant.
Elsewhere in the Zaporizhia region, Russian forces shelled civilian infrastructure in about a dozen communities and destroyed 30 houses, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday. Twenty buildings were damaged in the shelling of Nikopol, a town across the river from the Zaporizhia complex, the report said.
Three districts in the northern Kharkiv region – Kupyansk, Chuguiv and Izyum – also came under Russian artillery fire. And in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Russian shelling killed one person in Donetsk and damaged power lines, sources said.
The situation in the southern Kherson region “remains difficult,” the president’s office said, citing Ukrainian forces. Russian forces fired tank shells, rockets and other artillery at the city of Kherson and several nearby settlements recently liberated by Ukrainian forces.
Shells hit an oil depot in Kherson late Saturday, igniting a huge fire that billowed smoke into the air. Russian troops also shelled people queuing to get bread in Bilozerka, a town in the Kherson region, wounding five, the report said.
More than 80 tons of humanitarian aid have been sent to the city of Kherson – which still has little electricity, heat or water – local administrator Yaroslav Yanushevych said, including a UNICEF shipment of 1,500 children’s winter outfits, two 35-40-kilowatt generators and drinking water.
Also on Sunday, a funeral was held in eastern Poland for the second of two men killed in a rocket blast on Tuesday. The other man was buried on Saturday. Poland and the NATO chief both said the missile strike was unintentional and likely launched by Ukraine trying to shoot down Russian missiles or drones.
Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this.