Explosions reported at nuclear power plant seized by Russia

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

DRUZHKYVKA, Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities have been sounding the alarm for several months now. Just this week, the World Nuclear Safety Watch Agency warned of extraordinary risks. Then on Friday, artillery duels near a giant nuclear power plant on the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine created new security risks.

Explosions at and around the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant around 2:30 p.m. destroyed power lines and risked damage to the plant, forcing engineers to change the operation of one of its six reactors by reducing power, the Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said.

Hours later, a second series of three explosions damaged an auxiliary building next to one of the nuclear reactors, raising the risk of hydrogen leakage and fire, the company said.

President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials blamed Russia for the attacks.

“This is the largest nuclear power plant on our continent, and any shelling of this facility is an open, brazen crime, an act of terror,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address. “Russia should bear responsibility for the very fact of creating a threat to nuclear power plants.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces fired on the plant, accusing them of an act of “nuclear terrorism”.

According to the state nuclear company, there was no radiation release after the first explosions. But the forced change in the operating mode of the reactor highlighted the growing danger.

In recent weeks, fighting has intensified near the nuclear complex, which the Russian military controls and uses as a fortress, although Ukrainian engineers continue to operate it.

For about a month, Russia used the site to launch artillery strikes against Ukrainian targets without fear of retaliation, as the Ukrainian military cannot return fire without risking hitting safety equipment, reactors or spent fuel storage facilities. Ukrainian officials say the Russians are seeking to thwart a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s south.

After Friday afternoon’s explosions damaged a high-voltage power line, plant operators reduced power to one of the reactors. Previously, three of the station’s six reactors were in operation, two were on standby, and one was under scheduled maintenance.

It is not yet clear whether the reactor, whose operation was changed on Friday, has been switched to standby mode, said Dmitry Orlov, a former plant engineer and now mayor of Energodar, where the plant is located.

“This is an unusual event, but not unpredictable,” he said. “Personnel was prepared.” He compared it to emergency response in the event of a power line being damaged by a wildfire or other accident.

The state energy company Energoatom published a statement on the Telegram social network that Russian artillery had cut a power line. “The Russian military again went on a provocation,” the company said. It says that the industrial premises on the territory of the complex were hit three times, hitting the wiring and the transformer.

The statement said that the operators reduced power and disconnected one reactor from the power grid. No releases of radioactive substances have been recorded.

Hours later, the energy company reported a second attack on Telegram, saying the Russians fired three rocket-propelled grenades that landed near one of the nuclear reactors. The report says that the explosions damaged an auxiliary building and a specialized station. “The risk of fire is high,” the company said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said they are aware of these reports and request more information on the situation.

Ukrainian officials say they have few options but to endure Russian bombing. In July, Ukrainian military intelligence said it used a precision-guided kamikaze drone that explodes on contact with a target to destroy a Russian missile launcher and air defense system located about 150 yards from the reactor without damaging the reactor. myself.

The IAEA warned of serious dangers associated with the disastrous situation of the station. It says that the cornerstones of nuclear safety are being knocked out of the station even as it continues to operate. Among the shortcomings, he said, is the lack of physical security and regulatory oversight, which is now in limbo.

These concerns were echoed by the UK Department of Defense on Friday. In its daily intelligence report, the ministry said Russian troops “probably undermined the security” of the plant by using it as a base for “shelling Ukrainian territory on the western bank of the Dnieper River.”

Fighting around the complex in March caused the fire that sparked global fears about a possible nuclear accident.