KYIV, Aug 8 (Reuters) – International alarm over weekend artillery attacks on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex grew on Monday with Kyiv warning of the risk of a Chornobyl-style catastrophe and appealing for the area to be made a demilitarised zone.
The United Nations chief called for access to the plant as Kyiv and Moscow traded blame for the shelling in a southern region captured by Russian invaders in March and now targeted by Kyiv for a counter-offensive.
“Any attack (on) a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told a news conference on Monday in Japan, where he attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on Saturday to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Energoatom, called for a team of peacekeepers to be deployed at the Zaporizhzhia site, which is still run by Ukrainian technicians.
“The decision that we demand from the world community and all our partners … is to withdraw the invaders from the territory of the station and create a demilitarised zone on the territory of the station,” Kotin said on television.
“The presence of peacekeepers in this zone and the transfer of control of it to them, and then also control of the station to the Ukrainian side would resolve this problem.”
Russia’s defence ministry said on Monday that Ukrainian shelling had damaged high-voltage power lines servicing the Soviet-era plant and forced it to reduce output by two of its six reactors to “prevent disruption”.
A Russian-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region said earlier that the facility was operating normally.
Ukraine blamed Russia for renewed shelling in the area of the plant that it said damaged three radiation sensors, with two workers hospitalised for shrapnel injuries.
The Zaporizhzhia region’s Russian-installed authority said Ukrainian forces hit the site with a multiple rocket launcher, damaging administrative buildings and a storage area.
Reuters could not verify either side’s version of what happened.
In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the shelling was “extremely dangerous” and added: “We expect the countries that have absolute influence on the Ukrainian leadership to use this influence in order to rule out the continuation of such shelling.”
Ukraine’s Kotin flagged the danger of shells hitting spent containers of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel as especially dire. If two or more containers were broken, “it is impossible to assess the scale of this catastrophe”.
The world’s worst civil nuclear disaster occurred in 1986 when a reactor at the Chornobyl complex in northwest Ukraine exploded. The plant was occupied by Russian forces soon after the Feb. 24 invasion before they withdrew in late March.
Guterres said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needed access to the Zaporizhzhia plant. “We fully support the IAEA in all their efforts in relation to creat(ing) the conditions for stabilisation of the plant,” he said.
Ukraine has said it is planning to conduct a major counter-offensive in the Russian-occupied south, apparently focused on the city of Kherson, west of Zaporizhzhia, and that it has already retaken dozens of villages.