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South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant

A picture taken in Yuzhnoukrainsk on September 20, 2022 shows the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant the day after the nation's nuclear energy operator, Energoatom, accused Russia of attacking the facility. (Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Near Miss at Second Ukraine Plant Intensifies Fears of Nuclear Disaster

The IAEA director general said the "explosion near the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant all too clearly demonstrates the potential dangers also at other nuclear facilities in the country."

Jessica Corbett

Concerns about Russia's war on Ukraine sparking a nuclear disaster are growing after a missile on Monday hit within 1,000 feet of a Ukrainian power plant amid alarm over the security of another Russian-held energy facility.

"There is no other way to characterize this except for nuclear terrorism."

The missile struck near the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant (SUNPP), which is about 160 miles west of the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), Europe's largest such station. Shelling of that Russian-controlled facility—which Russia and Ukraine have blamed on each other—has fueled fears of a disaster in the nation home to Chernobyl.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), addressed both the missile strike close to the SUNPP and a disconnected power line that had provided the ZNPP with electricity from the Ukrainian grid in a statement Monday.

"The situation at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant remains fragile and precarious. Last week, we saw some improvements regarding its power supplies, but today we were informed about a new setback in this regard," he said. "The plant is located in the middle of a war zone, and its power status is far from safe and secure. Therefore, a nuclear safety and security protection zone must urgently be established there."

"While we have recently focused on the urgent need for action to prevent a nuclear accident at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant—establishing an IAEA presence there earlier this month—today's explosion near the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant all too clearly demonstrates the potential dangers also at other nuclear facilities in the country," Grossi added. "Any military action that threatens nuclear safety and security is unacceptable and must stop immediately."

Energoatom, the state-run operator of Ukraine's four nuclear stations, said that Russian forces "carried out a missile attack on the industrial site" of the SUNPP. No staff was harmed and all three reactors "are operating in a normal mode," but the "powerful explosion" damaged buildings, broke over 100 windows, and shut down a hydropower unit as well as three high-voltage power lines.

"Acts of nuclear terrorism committed by the Russian military threaten the whole world," Energoatom added. "They should be stopped immediately to prevent a new disaster!"

The head of the nuclear operator and a Ukrainian official issued similar warnings, according to The New York Times:

"There is no other way to characterize this except for nuclear terrorism," Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, told Ukrainian national television on Monday. He said that although the heavily fortified concrete buildings that house nuclear reactors are built to withstand a plane crash, the blast from the overnight strike would have been powerful enough to have damaged the containment structures, had the missile struck closer.

"A few hundred meters and we would have woken up in a completely different reality," Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president's office, said in a statement.

The Associated Press reported that while the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on the missile strike, Patricia Lewis, the international security research director at the Chatham House think tank in London, said that attacks on the plants suggest Russia is trying to shut down both power stations before winter.

"It's a very, very dangerous and illegal act to be targeting a nuclear station," she told the AP. "Only the generals will know the intent, but there's clearly a pattern."

"What they seem to be doing each time is to try to cut off the power to the reactor," Lewis continued. "It's a very clumsy way to do it, because how accurate are these missiles?"

Responding to the strike near SUNPP, Beyond Nuclear said Monday that "until now, all eyes have been focused on the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, far closer to the most intense of the military action. But there are four operational nuclear sites in Ukraine with 15 reactors total, all of which present a grave danger should the fighting embroil them."

The U.S.-based advocacy group also noted that "at Beyond Nuclear, we have been warning about these risks since before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24."

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