Ukraine: Anxiety surrounds Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant amid fears of attack

Ukraine: Anxiety surrounds Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant amid fears of attack

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Anxiety continued to surround the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Saturday following stark warnings by both sides of a potential attack on the facility, with fear coursing through the region and rippling around the globe.

The specter of a possible attack on the plant, the largest in Europe, loomed large over the grinding war, with Russian and Ukrainian officials accusing the other nation of courting calamity and risking a nuclear disaster.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of conducting “blackmail with radiation” in an address to the nation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has, in turn, accused Ukraine of shelling the plant and risking a “large-scale catastrophe,” an assertion unsupported by evidence.

What to know about Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

Even as the situation surrounding the plant remained perilous, Russian authorities were also said to be ramping up their security in Crimea amid reports of drone attacks in the region, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

“Russian authorities are visibly increasing security measures in Crimea, indicating growing concern among Russian authorities and civilians about the threat of Ukrainian strikes on rear areas previously believed to be secure,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based group, said in an assessment Friday.

The governor of Sevastopol said Russian forces had shot down a drone approaching the headquarters of its Black Sea fleet. The claim could not be independently verified.

The status of some Russian forces also came into question following a new report about damage stemming from recent explosions at an air base in the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian officials have previously said that their special forces were behind multiple explosions hitting targets within the Russian-occupied region.

HAS Washington Post analysis found that at least six explosions rocked the Saki air basenear Crimea’s western Black Sea coast, over nearly an hour earlier this month.

The news agency Reuters reported Friday that an unnamed Western official said the explosions at the Saki base knocked more than half of the Russian Black Sea fleet’s naval aviation combat jets out of commission.

Speaking on Friday, a senior US defense official said they did not “have an overall assessment” of “the total impact of the recent attacks.”

“Certainly, we are seeing this overarching picture of Russian forces being much more vulnerable than they thought they were, and we are seeing movements of Russian forces as a result to try to protect their capabilities,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

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The official said the US government was concerned about the situation around the Zaporizhzhia plant and watching it closely, saying that any “fighting near a nuclear power plant is dangerous.”

“We see Russia’s current actions in and around this plant as really the height of irresponsibility,” the official said.

Zelensky, in his address to the nation, said that Ukrainian officials and others were working out details for sending a group — including representatives from the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — to visit the plant.

World leaders want UN experts to visit the plant. António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, said that “any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”

UN Secretary General António Guterres said Aug. 18 that “any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide” and called for a demilitarized zone around the site. (Video: Reuters)

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, called for restraint amid “this highly volatile and fragile situation,” saying tensions needed to be lowered “to help ensure nuclear safety and security and prevent any radiological consequences for the population and the environment.”

Putin supports sending IAEA officials to the plant, according to a Kremlin readout of a phone call he held with French President Emmanuel Macron, but finding a formula for an inspection acceptable to both sides in the war has proved elusive.

While fears about the impact of a potential attack on Zaporizhzhia reverberated worldwide, the threat also loomed in the region surrounding the plant. Although many people had left — some a few months into the war, others since shelling began — others have stayed putenduring the shelling and waiting out the uncertainty.

Across the river from Ukraine nuclear plant, shelling adds to fear

Officials from both countries lobbed accusations at each other on social media over the weekend. On Saturday, Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted a call for “the entire diplomatic community in Vienna” to boycott Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador there.

Ulyanov had tweeted “No mercy to the Ukrainian population!” in response to a post about American aid to Ukraine. He said his words were being misinterpreted and argued that he was criticizing “the policy of pumping Ukraine with weapons combined with the rejection of diplomacy (leading to further suffering).”

Nikolenko said Ulyanov used “genocidal language” and was “calling for the elimination of the Ukrainian nation,” while Ulyanov tweeted that efforts to link his words “with a call for genocide are outrageous and absolutely unacceptable.”

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On the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, nine people in Mykolaiv were injured on Saturday — four of them children — following Russian strikes on a tower block there, the regional governor said.

In the city of Kharkiv, the regional governor said, overnight Russian rocket attacks struck “critical infrastructure facilities,” damaging homes and commercial buildings but not killing anyone.

Zelensky, in another address over the weekend, emphasized that the war was far from over, saying, “We still need to fight.”

“We must all be strong enough to endure and go all the way to Ukrainian victory,” he said.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of grain, though huge amounts were trapped in the country since Russia’s invasion earlier this year.

On Friday, the World Food Program chief told the Associated Press that the United States was preparing to buy 150,000 metric tons of grain from Ukraine in the next few weeks for an upcoming shipment of food aid, though the destinations were not confirmed.

Alex Horton in Washington, and Loveday Morris and Ievgeniia Sivorka in Nikopol, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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