Europe faced the prospect of a radiation disaster on Thursday when a Russian-occupied nuclear plant was disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid, President Volodomyr Zelensky has said.
The damage was caused by fires which Ukraine’s State nuclear agency said had interfered with power lines connecting the plant on Thursday, temporarily cutting Zaporizhzhia off from the national grid for the first time in its history.
There is growing concern over fighting near the complex, which is the largest nuclear plant in Europe.
“If the diesel generators hadn’t turned on, if the automation and our staff of the plant had not reacted after the blackout, then we would already be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” President Zelensky warned on Thursday night.
“As a result, the station’s two working power units were disconnected from the network,” Kyiv officials said.
On Friday afternoon, the state nuclear company said the plant had been reconnected to the electricity grid, with one of its six reactors providing power.
Right now, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is located in perhaps the most dangerous place it could be: the edge of Ukraine’s occupied territory. And because the Russian forces occupying the station aren’t letting anybody in, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which radiochemist Boris Zhuikov says is the best source for up-to-date information on the situation, has to find ways to monitor it from afar.
“There’s some kind of [remote] information reporting system,” he said. “But […] to what extent the full story is being reported is one of the biggest questions right now.”
According to Zhuikov, there’s been talk of an IAEA commission paying a visit to the plant, which is still being run by Ukrainian technicians. But both the Russian and Ukrainian sides have doubts about the feasibility of such a visit.
Russian armored vehicles enter the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plantTitle
Satellite images taken on Wednesday showed an extensive fire burning in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear complex. President Zelensky blamed the damage on Russian shelling, and in his nightly address accused Moscow of putting Ukraine and Europe “one step away” from disaster. But local Russian-appointed governor Yevgeny Balitsky blamed the Ukrainian military for the strikes, accusing them of causing power outages to the region as a result. Russia’s military took over the plant in early March, but it is still being operated by Ukrainian staff under difficult conditions.
Regional authorities in Zaporizhzhia said more than 18,000 people across several settlements remained without electricity on Friday due to damage caused to power lines.
At the heart of this crisis are the plant’s original staff, working under Russian occupation and quite probably under a great deal of stress. They have complained of the plant coming under continuous attack but warn the real threat of disaster would emerge if Russia shut the whole plant down, so it could disconnect the supply from Ukraine and reconnect it instead to Russian-occupied Crimea.