UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations chief called Thursday for an immediate end to all military activity around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, warning that any damage could lead to “catastrophic consequences” in the region and beyond.
Russian and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued the statement ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday afternoon. It was called by Russia to discuss what Moscow claims were Ukrainian attacks on the plant.
U.N. nuclear chief Rafael Grossi, who said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that the situation at the plant “is completely out of control,” is expected to brief the Security Council.
Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that the situation was getting more perilous every day at Zaporizhzhia, located in the city of Enerhodar which Russian troops seized in early March, soon after their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
While the plant is controlled by Russia, its Ukrainian staff continues to run the nuclear operations.
The Ukrainian state company operating the plant reported renewed Russian shelling of the facility and nearby buildings on Thursday.
“Five (hits) were recorded near the plant management’s office — right next to the welding site and the storage facility for radiation sources,” Enerhoatom said in a post on its official Telegram channel. “The grass caught fire over a small area, but fortunately, no one was hurt.”
Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine of attacking the plant and has urged Western powers to force a stop to Kyiv’s military action.
“Shelling of the territory of the nuclear plant by the Ukrainian armed forces is highly dangerous,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “It’s fraught with catastrophic consequences for vast territories, for the entire Europe.”
U.N. chief Guterres appealed in a statement “for common sense and reason” to avoid any actions “that might endanger the physical integrity, safety or security of the nuclear plant.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told defense leaders at a conference in Copenhagen on Thursday that “Russia could cause the largest radiation accident in history at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”
The Russian capture of Zaporizhzhia renewed fears that the largest of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors could be damaged, setting off another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital Kyiv.
Zelensky said the consequences of a radiation accident at Zaporizhzhia “could be even more catastrophic than Chernobyl, and essentially the same as the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, but without a nuclear strike.”
“if the Soviet authorities tried to hide the Chernobyl disaster and its full consequences, Russian authorities are much more cynical and dangerous,” the Ukrainian president said. “They are doing everything themselves to maximize the risk of a nuclear disaster, and lie to the whole world that someone else is allegedly to blame.”
Grossi said last week the IAEA needs to go to Zaporizhzhia, as it did to Chernobyl, to ascertain the facts of what is actually happening there, to carry out repairs and inspections, and “to prevent a nuclear accident from happening.”
The Kremlin-installed temporary head of the Zaporizhzhia region said Thursday the Russia-backed administration there stood ready to ensure the safety of any IAEA delegation sent to investigate conditions.
“We are fully ready to accept the IAEA, we will ensure security,” Yevhen Balytskyy said in an interview on Russian state TV. He added that the Kremlin-backed authorities had prepared armored vehicles for the international envoys.
Grossi said in a statement Wednesday that he would personally lead an expert mission to inspect the nuclear plant “in the very near future,” without elaborating on the timeline.
Joanna Kozlowska contributed to this report from London.