Close call’ in shelling near nuclear reactor on Ukraine’s frontline

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KYIV, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Ukraine narrowly escaped disaster during fighting at the weekend that rocked Europe’s largest atomic power plant with a barrage of shells, some falling near reactors and damaging a radioactive waste storage building, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said.

It was not clear which side was responsible for at least a dozen explosions at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which has been under Russian control since soon after it invaded the country on Feb. 24 but is across the Dnipro river from areas controlled by Kyiv.

The shelling comes as battles raged further east following troop movements from around Ukraine’s recently recaptured Kherson, further south along the Dnipro.

Whoever fired on the plant was taking “huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives”, said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “We are talking metres, not kilometres.

“We were fortunate a potentially serious nuclear incident did not happen. Next time, we may not be so lucky,” Grossi said late on Sunday in a statement, describing the situation as a “close call”.

Repeated shelling of the plant during the war has raised concern about a grave disaster in the country that suffered the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chornobyl meltdown.

Radiation levels remained normal and there were no reports of casualties, the IAEA said. While there was no direct impact on nuclear safety and security systems, “the shelling came dangerously close to them”, Grossi said.

MISSILE STRIKES

Russia’s response to its military setbacks has included a barrage of missile strikes, many on power facilities that have left much of the country without electricity as winter sets in and temperatures drop below freezing.

Grossi spoke to world leaders and reiterated the need for a nuclear safety and security protection zone around Zaporizhzhia, the IAEA said.

The head of Russia’s state-run nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said on Monday it had discussed Sunday’s shelling with the IAEA, and said there was a risk of a nuclear accident.

“The plant is at risk of a nuclear accident. We were in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all night,” Interfax quoted Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev as saying.

Rosatom has controlled the facility through a subsidiary since President Vladimir Putin in October ordered Russia to formally seize the plant and transfer Ukrainian staff to a Russian entity. Kyiv says the transfer of assets amounts to theft.

DAMAGED INFRASTRUCTURE

Kyiv controls territory across the river from the power station, including the regional capital. The Zaporizhzhia plant itself and territory south of it fell to Russia in March.

Both sides traded blame for the latest shelling, as they have done repeatedly in recent months after attacks on the plant or near it.

Here is what we know about the incident:

WHAT HAPPENED?

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the plant came under the most intense shelling of recent months on Saturday, shortly after 6 p.m. local time, and on Sunday at 9:15 a.m.

There were more than a dozen blasts within 40 minutes, according to the IAEA.

IAEA experts reported “damage in several places, including a radioactive waste and storage building, cooling pond sprinkler systems, an electrical cable to one of the reactors, condensate storage tanks, and to a bridge between another reactor and its auxiliary buildings”.

External power supplies were not affected and radiation levels at the plant remained normal, the IAEA said.

The biggest risk is from overheating nuclear fuel, which could happen if the power that drives the cooling systems was cut. Shelling has repeatedly cut power lines.

Besides the reactors, there is also a dry spent fuel storage facility at the site for used nuclear fuel assemblies, and spent fuel pools at each reactor site that are used to cool down the used nuclear fuel.

‘CLOSE CALL’

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said it was a “close call”.

“We were fortunate that a potentially serious nuclear incident did not happen,” Grossi said. “Next time, we may not be so lucky. We must do everything in our power to make sure there is no next time.”

Grossi wants a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the plant.

“Even though there was no direct impact on key nuclear safety and security systems at the plant, the shelling came dangerously close to them. We are talking metres, not kilometres.

“Whoever is shelling at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, is taking huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives,” Grossi said.

WHO SHELLED THE PLANT?

Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for shelling the Russian-controlled plant. Reuters was unable to independently verify who was telling the truth.

Russia’s defence ministry said Ukraine’s armed forces fired 11 large calibre shells at the plant on Nov. 19 and 12 large caliber shells from 9:15-9:45 a.m. local time on Sunday and then two more at power lines.

Russia said the shelling was conducted from Marhanets in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

“The regime in Kyiv does not cease provocations aimed at creating a threat of a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” the Russian defence ministry said.

Ukraine’s nuclear energy firm Energoatom said the Russian military shelled the plant. It said there had been at least 12 hits on the plant on Sunday.

“The nature of the damaged equipment at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shows that the attackers aimed at, and disabled, precisely the infrastructure that was necessary for the start-up of reactors 5 and 6,” Energoatom said.

“The Rashysty [a portmanteau of Russian and fascists] once again engaged in nuclear blackmail and thus endanger the whole world with their actions!” it said.

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