(Bloomberg) — The head of the UN’s atomic agency warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences” in his first response to shelling Friday around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Ukraine said Russian forces shelled the Zaporizhzhia facility in Enerhodar, southeastern Ukraine. Moscow blamed Kyiv for the incident.
The attack “underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a lengthy statement.
Military action around the plant — which Russia occupied in March but is still operated by Ukrainian personnel — “is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs,” he said. “This must stop, and stop now.”
Almost all seven “indispensable pillars” of nuclear safety have been compromised at Zaporizhzhia over the past several months, including in the last 24 hours, Grossi said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian troops fired at the plant twice on Friday, and called for sanctions against Russia’s nuclear industry.
“Any shelling of this facility is an open, brazen crime, an act of terror,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
Russia’s defense ministry denied the reports of its involvement, saying Ukraine had done the shelling itself.
Kremlin forces occupied the plant and surrounding areas in March. The UK has said that Russia’s military is using the plant’s “protected status” to launch attacks on surrounding areas without fear of retaliation.
Russia appears to be using its control of the facility “to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine, likely in an effort to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” the Institute for the Study of War, US-based military analysts, said in an Aug. 3 report.
Fighting is expected to escalate in the area as Ukrainian forces mount a counter-offensive to recapture territory from Moscow in southeastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s national nuclear power operator said Friday it disconnected one of three generators that were operating at the plant after Russian projectiles landed nearby.
In his statement, Grossi said that there had been no damage to the nuclear reactors themselves and no radiological release. “However, there is damage elsewhere on the site,” he said.
In support of Russia’s contention that Ukraine attacked the plant, Igor Vishnevetsky, a senior Russian disarmament diplomat, said Moscow would appeal to the UN and IAEA in a bid to pressure Kyiv to stop targeting the facility.
“Otherwise the consequences will be hard to predict,” he said.
The IAEA has for four months requested permission to visit the plant, without success, according to Grossi. “This will need the cooperation, understanding and facilitation from both Ukraine and Russia,” he said.