KYIV, Ukraine — Powerful explosions from shelling rocked Ukraine’s Zaporozhye region, site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the global nuclear watchdog said Sunday, calling for “urgent measures to prevent a nuclear incident” at the Russian-occupied facility.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said multiple explosions near the plant – on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning – abruptly ended a period of relative calm around the nuclear facility, which had been the site of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
The fighting has raised the specter of a nuclear disaster since Russian troops occupied the plant in the early days of the war.
With renewed shelling both near and at the site, IAEA experts at the Zaporizhia facility reported hearing more than a dozen explosions in a short period of time on Sunday morning and seeing some explosions from their windows, the agency said.
Several buildings, systems and equipment at the power plant – none critical to the plant’s nuclear safety – were damaged, the IAEA said, citing plant management.
However, Grossi called the reports of the shelling “extremely disturbing” and called on both countries to urgently establish a nuclear safety and security zone around the facility.
“Whoever is behind this needs to stop immediately,” he said. “As I have said many times before, you are playing with fire!”
Russia has been striking Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air, causing massive blackouts for millions of Ukrainians amid cold weather. It left Ukrainians without heat, electricity or water, while a blanket of snow blanketed the capital, Kyiv, and other cities.
Ukraine’s state nuclear operator said Russian forces were behind the shelling of the Zaporizhia plant. Energoatom said on Sunday that the targeted equipment there was in line with the Kremlin’s intention to “damage or destroy as much as possible of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure” as winter approaches.
The weekend strikes damaged the system that would have allowed units 5 and 6 to restart producing electricity for Ukraine, the energy operator said. It listed the chemical desalinated water storage tanks and the steam generator treatment system as damaged on Sunday, although the full extent of the damage was still being assessed.
Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate decided to bring the two units to a minimum controlled power level to produce steam, which is crucial in winter to ensure the safety of the plant and surrounding areas, Energoatom said.
However, Moscow blamed Ukrainian forces. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov accused the Ukrainians of shelling the power plant twice on Sunday. He also said two shells landed near power lines supplying the plant with electricity.
Elsewhere in the Zaporizhia region, Russian forces shelled civilian infrastructure in about a dozen settlements, destroying 30 homes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said on Sunday. Twenty buildings were damaged by shelling in Nikopol, a town across the river from the Zaporizhia plant, the report said.
Three areas in the northern part of Kharkiv Oblast – Kupyansk, Chuguiv and Izyum – were also shelled by Russian artillery. And in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk region, Russian shelling killed one person in Donetsk and damaged power lines, the statement said.
The situation in the southern Kherson region “remains difficult,” the presidential office said, citing Ukraine’s armed forces. Russian forces shelled the city of Kherson and several nearby towns that were recently liberated by Ukrainian forces with tank shells, rockets and other artillery.
Shelling late Saturday hit an oil depot in Kherson, lighting a huge fire that sent smoke into the air. Russian troops also fired on people queuing for bread in Bilozerka, a town in the Kherson region, wounding five, the report said.
In the city of Kherson – which still has little electricity, heat or water – more than 80 tons of humanitarian aid have been sent, said local administrator Yaroslav Janushevich, including a UNICEF shipment of 1,500 winter gear for children, two 35-40 kilowatt generators and drinking water .
Also Sunday, a funeral was held in eastern Poland for the second of two men killed in a rocket explosion on Tuesday. The other man was buried on Saturday. Both Poland and the NATO chief said the missile strike appeared to be unintentional and was likely carried out by Ukraine as it tried to shoot down Russian missiles or drones.
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