Why The UN Is Worried About This Ukrainian Nuclear Plant – Now More Than Ever

UN chief has warned that any attack on such a nuclear plant is "suicidal".
Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, in south Ukraine, guarded by a Russian soldier
Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, in south Ukraine, guarded by a Russian soldier
Alexander Ermochenko via Reuters

A Ukrainian nuclear plant which was taken over during the Russian invasion is now at the centre of a growing worry for the United Nations.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, based towards the south of Ukraine and near Mariupol, is Europe’s largest atomic plant.

It has been under Russian control since March this year although Ukrainian technicians continue to operate inside the structure.

The region is now being targeted by the Ukrainian forces for a counter-offensive, meaning it has been put at the frontline of the war and could come under attack.

The UN has therefore amplified its safety concerns around the plant in recent days, especially as Russia and Ukraine traded blows over the weekend.

Here’s why this latest batch of fighting has specialists even more concerned than before.

What is the UN worried about?

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres explained on Monday that he thought “any attack (on) a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing”, and expressed fears there could be a repeat of the horrific 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

This nuclear accident contaminated the environment and local people for decades afterwards.

Guterres was also speaking from Japan, having attended the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on Saturday to honour the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.

Guterres has called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to access the nuclear plant so that it can be stabilised and secured amid the growing violence, and wants the area to be demilitarised to prevent further disaster.

Who is to blame for the growing violence?

Kyiv and Moscow have been blaming one another for the increased shelling in the region over the recent days.

Ukraine has claimed Russian shelling hit three radiation sensors and hurt a worker on Saturday. It also alleged that the Moscow forces have made the entire site into a military base, making it harder for them to target Russian troops and equipment.

On the other hand, Russia’s defence ministry alleges that Ukraine damaged the site through a multiple rocket launcher, hitting buildings, power lines, a water pipeline and a storage facility.

The Russian embassy in Washington even tweeted: “Only thanks to the effective and timely actions of the Russian military in covering the nuclear power facility, its critical infrastructure was not affected.”

Russia also accused Ukraine of putting ”the whole of Europe on the brink of nuclear catastrophe” by bombing Zaporizhzhia.

According to Reuters, it is not currently possible to determine which side was responsible for the attack on the power station at the moment.

But, the IAEA chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said that this tension “underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster”.

Ukraine is calling for an intervention

Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Energoatom, called for peacekeepers to be deployed at the site too.

He said: “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.”

Kotin said if the shells hit two or more spent containers of radioactive fuel, it would be “impossible to assess the scale of this catastrophe”.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the IAEA, Yevkenii Tsymbaliuk, also called for international inspectors and said Russia was trying to cause electricity blackouts through its shelling.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of “nuclear terror” and called for more international sanctions against Moscow, this time with a focus on its nuclear sector.

“There is no such nation in the world that could feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant,” the president said.

And Russia wants an intervention, too

However, earlier reports suggested the complex was working normally.

The Russian forces installed in the area claimed Ukrainian forces were hitting the site with a multiple rocket launcher, damaging buildings and a storage area.

Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, said the shelling was “extremely dangerous”, and called on the countries which he claimed “have absolute influence on the Ukrainian leadership” to rule out the continuation of such shelling.

Reuters was unable to verify either account about where the shelling came from.


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