The largest nuclear power plant in Europe, that of Zaporizhia, continues to be at the center of combat and artillery fire between the Russian and Ukrainian armies that raise fears of a radioactive leak worse than those of Fukushima, in 2011, and Chernobyl, in 1986 Ukrainian sources accused Russian forces on Monday of bombing Energodar, on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River (southeast Ukraine), where the facilities are located, while Moscow assures that kyiv has tried to attack the plant with a drone. As fighting continues for which both sides blame each other, a mission from the United Nations nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is already on its way to Zaporizhia, where it is expected to arrive this week, to assess the damage suffered by the facilities. The Kremlin assured this Monday that a demilitarized zone around the atomic plant is not being considered.
Zaporizhia, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts (MW), is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the third largest in the world, just behind Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, in Japan, and Bruce, in Canada. Its facilities house six of the 15 reactors that Ukraine has. Since the beginning of the invasion, its location near the front line in the south of the country has placed it perilously close to disaster. In mid-August, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, summed up the situation by stressing: “The risk of a nuclear confrontation has returned”.
This warning could have fallen on deaf ears again, judging by the fighting and attacks that kyiv and Moscow, which has kept the facilities occupied since March 4, reproach each other. According to reports in his Telegram account who was mayor of Energodar until the military occupation of Russia, Dmitro Orlov, Russian troops bombed in the early hours of Sunday to Monday “two neighborhoods [el 3 y el 5] from the Russian-occupied city of Energodar, in the Zaporizhia region,” he wrote in a message quoted by Ukrainian media and picked up by Efe. Energodar, with some 50,000 inhabitants before the Russian invasion, was created in 1970 to serve the plant and house its workers.
“The first reports indicate that an apartment in one of the residential buildings on Voiniv-Internatsionalistiv (street) was attacked. Information about the victims and the extent of the destruction is becoming clear,” Orlov added. “Windows have been shattered in some of the neighboring buildings. Some of the cars parked in the courtyard (of the building) caught fire, ”said the Ukrainian mayor in his message. kyiv also accuses Russia of harboring weapons and military vehicles in the engine room of one of the reactors, something that seems to be confirmed by a video leaked by a plant employee last week.
The tension in Zaporizhia rose whole from June, when the invading artillery began a campaign of attacks on Ukrainian municipalities on the other side of the Dnipro River. The Russian batteries, protected by the proximity of the plant, became the target of Ukrainian fire.
The Russian Defense Ministry assured, for its part, also on Monday, that the Ukrainian forces tried to attack the nuclear power plant with a drone, which was shot down near the nuclear waste storage area, according to the official Russian agency Tass, quoted by Reuters.
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No demilitarized zone
Since practically the beginning of the Russian invasion, on February 24, the UN has repeatedly urged both contenders to end all military activity in the area surrounding the plant and allow a security verification visit by IAEA experts. , the independent institution, but included in the United Nations system, in charge of guaranteeing the safety of nuclear installations.
Ukraine initially resisted endorsing this trip, fearing that the presence of IAEA experts would legitimize the Russian occupation, but later became convinced of the need to approve the mission. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even urged the UN body to send its teams as soon as possible. On August 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin also finally agreed that the team of inspectors would travel to Zaporizhia “as soon as possible”. Putin also agreed to allow the inspectors to travel to the plant, passing through Ukraine without having to cross the territory of Russia or that which Moscow maintains occupied in the former Soviet republic, as the Kremlin initially intended, after Putin had a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron informed the French Presidency in a statement.
During his talk with Macron, Putin insisted that a large-scale nuclear catastrophe “could contaminate huge territories with radiation.” An official French source, who spoke to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity shortly after, set as a condition for the verification visit to be carried out “a ceasefire” in Zaporizhia, prior to the arrival of the inspectors. The day before, the Russian Ministry of Defense had released a map in which it maintained that what it defined as a possible “accident” at that nuclear power plant would not affect Russia, but it would cause a radioactive cloud over Moldova, Romania, Poland and Germany.
Moscow described this Monday as “necessary” the IAEA mission, but then cooled expectations about the cessation of fighting around the plant. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov urged the international community to put pressure on Ukraine to “reduce military tension” over the plant and accused kyiv of endangering all of Europe. Peskov later specified that Russia has not talked about the possibility of establishing a demilitarized zone around Zaporizhia, as the United States has urged it to do. “Any option other than demilitarizing Zaporizhia would be suicide,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres during his visit to Ukraine on August 18.
After obtaining Moscow’s approval for the UN mission, this Monday, the director of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, announced that the mission of experts is “already on its way” to Zaporizhia from Vienna, where its headquarters are located, and that It will arrive at the plant “this week”, without specifying what day.
The experts’ trip begins a few days after, last Thursday, a fire caused by the bombings that kyiv and Moscow mutually attribute, left the plant “totally disconnected” due to damage to the electrical connections with the country’s network ” for the first time in its history”, as announced by Energoatom, the company that ran the facilities until Russia seized it.
The plant partially returned to operation on Friday after the reactors were restarted. The facilities were already only connected to the network by one of the four enabled points before the region experienced an increase in military tension. On Saturday, Energoatom again warned of the risk of radioactive leaks and fires due to military attacks. The Zaporizhia plant continues to be managed by Energoatom personnel despite being under Russian control. This is because the plant must continue to function, connected to the current power grid, which supplies Ukraine. However, Moscow has already warned that its intention is to disconnect it from the Ukrainian network to connect its energy to the Russian network and the occupied territories.
The IAEA mission will need to assess the physical damage to the plant facilities and determine whether the main safety and security system, as well as the standby system, are functional. In addition, it must verify the working conditions of the plant’s personnel, now subject to Russian authority, and carry out urgent safeguard activities to verify the existence of the nuclear materials declared by Ukraine to the IAEA.
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