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 demilitarized 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.
Read more: UN chief warns against nuclear weapons on the 77th anniversary of Hiroshima
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.”
Despite the shelling, the Zaporizhzhia complex was operating in “normal mode”, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted the Russian-installed local administration head as saying on Monday.
This short clip deserves the world's full attention. Russian forces in #Enerhodar are using the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as a playground for soldiers, armored units, and equipment to hide in.
The facility is the 9th largest in the world. https://t.co/ZQ728FI7A0
— The Intel Crab (@IntelCrab) August 7, 2022
Ukraine blamed Russia for renewed shelling in the area of the plant on Saturday that it said damaged three radiation sensors, with two workers hospitalized for shrapnel injuries.
It was the second reported hit on the plant in as many days, after damage to power lines servicing the plant.
The Zaporizhzhia region’s Russian-installed authority said Ukrainian forces hit the site with multiple rocket launchers, 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 an 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 one of the four reactors of the Chornobyl plant in northwest Ukraine caught fire and exploded.
Read more: Chernobyl disaster zone lures tourists as visitor numbers boom
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 stabilization 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.
Grinding battle for Donbas
Russia says it is waging a “special military operation” in Ukraine to rid it of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Ukraine and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked imperial-style war to reassert control over a pro-Western neighbor lost when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
The conflict has displaced millions, killed thousands of civilians, and left cities, towns and villages in ruins.
Russian forces are trying to gain full control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region where pro-Moscow separatists seized territory after the Kremlin annexed Crimea to the south in 2014.
“Ukrainian soldiers are firmly holding the defence, inflicting losses on the enemy and are ready for any changes in the operational situation,” Ukraine’s general staff said in an operational update on Monday.
Read more: Russia-Ukraine war and the essence of nuclear deterrence
Russian forces stepped up attacks north and northwest of Russian-held Donetsk city in the Donbas on Sunday, Ukraine’s military said. It said the Russians pounded Ukrainian positions near the heavily fortified settlements of Piski and Avdiivka, as well as shelling other locations in Donetsk province.
Russia is also trying to entrench its position in southern Ukraine, where it has been building up forces in a bid to fend off any counter-offensive near Kherson, Kyiv has said.