Ukraine accused Russian forces on Sunday of firing rockets that landed on the grounds of a nuclear power plant that Russia has seized in the south of the country, further raising the risk of an accident at a complex where the United Nations’ nuclear agency has said that the principles of nuclear safety have been violated. A pro-Russian regional official blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack.
The rockets fired Saturday evening landed near a dry spent fuel storage facility, where 174 casks are stored, each containing 24 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel, according to Enerhoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear energy company. One person was wounded by shrapnel and many windows were damaged.
“Apparently, they aimed specifically at the casks with spent fuel, which are stored in the open near the site of shelling,” the company said in a post on the Telegram social messaging app.
Three radiation detection monitors were damaged so “timely detection and response in case of aggravation of the radiation situation or leakage of radiation from spent nuclear fuel casks are currently impossible,” the post said, adding that a catastrophe was “miraculously avoided.”
Russian forces have controlled the Zaporizhzhia plant since March. A spokesman for Ukraine’s intelligence directorate, Andrei Yusov, said that Russia was shelling the site to destroy infrastructure and damage power lines that supply electricity to Ukraine’s national grid and, ultimately, to cause a power blackout in the south of the country. There was no independent confirmation of the assertion.
The head of the pro-Russian administration in Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, said on Telegram on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had used an Uragan cluster rocket to target the spent fuel storage area and damage administrative buildings. On Thursday, Russia’s defense ministry said that Ukraine had launched an artillery strike against the plant.
During a national television phone-in show on Sunday, the head of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia regional military administration, Oleksandr Starukh, said that there was only a three-second delay between the firing and the landing of each shell, using this as evidence that the attack had come from Russian forces nearby.
Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has made it a priority to seize critical infrastructure including power plants, ports, transportation, and agricultural storage and production facilities. It has also targeted infrastructure in Ukrainian hands.
In an earlier post, Enerhoatom said that Russian shellfire had damaged a nitrogen-oxygen unit and the combined auxiliary building. “There are still risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances, and the fire hazard is also high,” the post said.
Mr. Yusov also said on Telegram that Russian forces had laid mines at the plant’s power units.
Concern about safety at Zaporizhzhia has been mounting since March when a fire broke out in a building during fighting as Russian forces took control. The Ukrainian authorities say that Russian forces have since stored weapons including artillery at the plant and in recent weeks began shelling Nikopol, a nearby city held by Ukraine, from positions on its grounds.
The prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to reclaim land in Kherson Province, which is southwest of Zaporizhzhia, also heightens instability. Ukraine was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident when, in 1986, there was a reactor fire at Chernobyl in the north of the country. There are no reports of a radiation leak at Zaporizhzhia.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that a particular concern is its inability to access Zaporizhzhia for monitoring purposes. Ukrainian plant workers operate under stress, in part because Russian authorities suspect the possibility of sabotage, and the exiled mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, has said that some workers have been interrogated or have disappeared, and at least one has been killed.