Howitzers Sunday started shelling on the Ukrainian town of Nikopol from the side of Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, The New York Times reported. The shelling resumed as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned in a video address Saturday that Russian soldiers using the nuclear plant site as a base to launch attacks will become a special target for “our special services, for our army”.
Experts have repeatedly raised an alarm over the plant being in an active combat zone. The International Atomic Energy Agency has underlined that the current situation poses a grave risk of a nuclear catastrophe.
Located in southern Ukraine on the banks of Kakhovka reservoir on the Dnipro river, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant is Europe’s largest, and 10th biggest in the world. Before the war started, it produced half of Ukraine’s power with a total capacity of 5,700 MW. The plant has six reactors with a capacity of 950 MW each. However, only three reactors are currently active. Geographically, the plant is located 200-km from Russia-annexed Crimea, and 500-odd km from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
Russia captured the plant site in early March and continues to control it. As of now, the plant is run by Ukrainian staff, and ‘guarded’ by Russian troops.
Kyiv, according to Associated Press, has been planning a counteroffensive to recapture Zaporizhzhia and neighbouring Kherson provinces. However, Ukrainian forces controlling the area on the opposite bank from the nuclear plant have repeatedly faced Russian artillery fire from the other side.
Moscow has been accused of using the nuclear plant as a shield to fire rockets to target Ukrainian positions. Russia, on the other hand, blames Ukraine for shelling near the plant. The threat of a nuclear disaster remains real with the plant housing active reactors and stored nuclear waste.
While engineers, according to The NYT, believe that reinforced concrete containment structures protect the reactors from even direct hits, there is concern that a fire sparked by the shelling can trigger a nuclear accident.
In a report, Al Jazeera said that more than a reactor core explosion, experts are worried about damage to systems that cool spent fuel pool and the reactors. The report added that in case of a disaster, a radiation release could hit any part of Europe due to the plant’s location.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that the situation could “lead to disaster”. The IAEA has been seeking access to the plant for a while now, and utmost restraint. Amid demands to turn the area into a demilitarized zone, the G7 group of nations have called on Russia to immediately exit the plant and hand its control back to Ukraine.