DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Fighting raged on Saturday near an expanding nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite warnings from nuclear safety monitors earlier this week that conditions there posed a risk and were “out of control.”
The Russian military is using the Zaporozhye plant, Europe’s largest, as a base for an assault on the Ukrainian-held city of Nikopol across the river. On Saturday, it fired a volley of Grad rockets that damaged 11 residential buildings and 36 private houses, and injured three people, the Ukrainian army reported.
The attack also cut electricity, water and natural gas supplies to the city, where residents are fleeing artillery attacks and the accompanying risk of radiation, the Ukrainian military said.
Russian forces began launching artillery attacks from the plant about a month ago, and the Ukrainian military said it could not return fire for fear it would hit a reactor at the plant, causing a radiation disaster.
Ukraine also accused the Russians of setting off explosions at the plant aimed at unnerving European allies about nuclear safety and discouraging Ukraine from arming itself.
The Zaporozhye factory occupies a dangerous location on the wide Dnieper River, along the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controls the west bank, while the Russians are entrenched around the plant on the east bank of the river.
The fighting near the nuclear plant came as clashes continued elsewhere in Ukraine, including Russian artillery and tank attacks on the eastern city of Bakhmut, the site of some of the fiercest fighting on the front in recent days.
The Ukrainian military continued to strike targets far behind Russia’s front lines, hoping to cut ammunition and fuel supplies. US-supplied HIMARS missiles helped turn the tide of the war, and on Friday Ukraine struck three command posts and six ammunition depots at various positions behind enemy lines on the front lines, it said in a statement.
Outrage over nuclear safety violations — Rafael Grossi, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said Tuesday that “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated” — has done nothing to drive the Russian army from the site, and fighting continues daily, with explosions in the early afternoon in Friday. mr. Grossi called conditions at the plant “out of control.”
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mr. Grossi said he was far more worried about Zaporozhye than Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, also in Ukraine, that irradiated the surrounding area and threatened Europe.
“Chernobyl, I think we’re fine,” said Mr. Grossi, noting that his agency regularly inspected the plant and restored radiation monitoring sensors and other detection devices.
But the IAEA has been unable to gain access to key parts of the reactors in Zaporozhye because occupying Russian forces and surrounding shelling make it too dangerous for inspectors. That raises the prospect that if damage is done to the facility, it may be difficult at best to assess the danger, he added.
In a statement released on Saturday, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear company Enerhoatam said Russian soldiers had occupied basements at the plant and were preventing employees from sheltering in them, despite the risks of fighting in the area. “People will have no shelter and are in danger,” the statement said.
Blocking access to the shelters comes on top of other psychological stress for Ukrainian workers in the reactor’s control room and other plant employees, who have been subjected to brutal interrogations, including electric shock torture, according to Ukrainian officials. The voltage poses a risk of accidents due to human error, officials said.
Friday’s explosions knocked out high-voltage power lines, forcing Ukrainian workers to cut power to one of the plant’s six reactors. Two others had already been shut down, and a third was undergoing routine maintenance.
Later in the day, a second series of explosions damaged a building on the plant’s grounds, according to Ukraine’s state nuclear power company. The company said Russia orchestrated the blasts; The Russian military said the attacks came from the Ukrainian side.
In his overnight address to Ukrainians on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky highlighted what he called the “brazen crime” of the Russian military using the nuclear power plant as cover.
“The occupiers have created another extremely risky situation for everyone in Europe. Zelensky said, citing explosions earlier in the day at the plant. “This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent. And any shelling of this facility is an open, brazen crime, an act of terrorism.
Advisor to Mr. Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, addressed the risk even more bluntly in a Twitter post on Saturday, suggesting that a catastrophe that sends radiation over Europe could happen any day.
“This morning in Europe became possible only because the Zaporozhye NPP miraculously did not explode yesterday,” he wrote, using the acronym for nuclear power plant. He proposed that the UN negotiate a Russian withdrawal from the plant, which would place the site under the control of an independent “special commission”.
Western countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia for its war against Ukraine and Mr. Zelensky urged them to extend them to the Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom. The the company has signed contracts with dozens of countries around the world, including China, India, Turkey and Finland, to design and build nuclear power plants
“It’s purely a matter of safety,” Mr. Zelensky said. “One who creates nuclear threats to other nations is definitely not capable of using nuclear technology safely.
mr. Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine “threatens one of the largest nuclear energy programs in the world”. noting multiple safety violations at the Zaporizhia plant and describing the situation as “out of control.”
“Inaction is reckless,” he said. “If an accident happens at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, we will not blame it on a natural disaster. We will have only ourselves to answer to.”
Basing military equipment at the plant gives Russia a tactical advantage, Ukrainian military commanders and civilian officials say.
Russia has parked an armored personnel carrier and trucks in the engine room of reactor no. 1, according to Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the nuclear plant is located.
Russia is placing rocket artillery mounts between reactor hulls, Mr. said Orlov. Ukrainian military intelligence claims to have hit one with a drone ammunition in July.
Russia’s use of the site for military purposes is also intended to signal the danger of the continuation of the Western policy of arming Ukraine, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said in a statement.
The Council’s Counter-Disinformation Center described the goal as increasing “fear in Europe of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe and reducing the willingness of Western countries to provide military aid.”
David E. Senger contributed reports from Weston, Vt.