The United Nations nuclear watchdog has called for officials to visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant as soon as possible amid renewed shelling in the area and warnings of the “catastrophic consequences” of continued fighting near Europe’s largest atomic plant.
“This is a serious hour, a grave hour and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] must be allowed to conduct its mission to Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible,” the agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, told an emergency meeting of the UN security council on Thursday night.
Ukraine’s state-run company operating the plant, Energoatom, said the area was struck five times on Thursday, including near the site where radioactive materials are stored.
“Five [hits] were recorded near the plant management’s office – right next to the welding site and the storage facility for radiation sources,” Enerhoatom said in a post on its official Telegram channel. “The grass caught fire over a small area, but fortunately, no one was hurt.”
The claims come just one day after Ukraine accused Russia of firing rockets from around a captured nuclear power plant, killing at least 13 people and wounding 10, in the knowledge that it would be risky for Ukraine to return fire.
The UN’s top official called for an immediate end to all military activity around the Zaporizhzhia plant, warning that further “deeply worrying” incidents could – if they continue – lead to disaster.
“I am calling for all military activities in the immediate vicinity of the plant to cease immediately and not to target its facilities or surroundings,” António Guterres, the secretary general, said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
Guterres warned that any potential damage to the Zaporizhzhia plant “could lead to catastrophic consequences not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond”.
Grossi said he was ready to lead an expert mission to inspect the site in south-eastern Ukraine and called on Russia and Ukraine to cooperate so officials could travel as soon as possible.
“Time is of the essence,” he told the 15-member security council via video feed, adding that the agency could perform urgent work on safeguards and provide a stabilizing influence in order “to prevent a nuclear accident from happening”.
“The IAEA has been ready to perform such a mission since June when we were ready to go,” Grossi told the council, adding that all military action around the plant needed to stop.
Zaporizhzhia, located in the city of Enerhodar, which Russian troops seized in early March, has been the scene of increasing clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
The plant is controlled by Russia but its Ukrainian technicians continue to run the nuclear operations.
The two sides have traded blame over a recent escalation in fighting around the nuclear facility.
Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, warned earlier in the week of the danger of shells hitting containers of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. If two or more containers were to be broken, “it is impossible to assess the scale” of the resulting disaster.
“Such insane actions could lead to the situation spiraling out of control and it will be a Fukushima or Chornobyl,” he said.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accused Moscow in his latest national address on Thursday evening of resorting to “unconcealed nuclear blackmail”.
“No one else has used a nuclear plant so obviously to threaten the whole world and to put forward some conditions,” he said. “Only the complete withdrawal of Russians from the territory of the Zaporizhzhia NPP and the restoration of Ukraine’s full control over the situation around the plant will guarantee the restoration of nuclear safety for all of Europe.”
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia said on Thursday the world was being pushed “to the brink of nuclear catastrophe, comparable in scale with Chornobyl” but placed the blame on Ukraine’s shoulders.
The US state department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, Bonnie Jenkins, supported the idea of an IAEA mission to Ukraine. “This visit cannot wait any longer,” she told the security council, adding that the only way to ensure nuclear safety would be for Moscow to end its war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report