KYIV: The world narrowly escaped a radiation disaster when electricity to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was cut off for hours, Ukraine’s president said on Thursday, urging international bodies to act faster to force Russian troops to vacate the site.

President Volodymyr Zelen­sky said Russian shelling had sparked fires in the ash pits of a nearby coal power station that disconnected the Zaporozhzhia plant from the power grid. A Russian official said Ukraine was to blame.

Back-up diesel generators ensured power supply vital for cooling and safety systems at the plant, Zelensky said, praising the Ukrainian technicians who operate the plant under the gaze of the Russian military.

“If our station staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would have already been forced to overcome the consequences of a radiation accident,” he said in a video address.

“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster… Every minute that Russian troops remain at the nuclear power station there is a risk of a global radiation catastrophe,” he said.

Residents in the capital Kyiv, about 550 km to the north-west of the plant, expre­ssed alarm at the situation.

“Of course everyone is afraid, the entire world is afraid. I really want the situation to become peaceful again,” said businessman Volodymyr, 35, who declined to give his last name.

“I want the power shortages to be overcome and additional facilities to be operational.”

Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said electricity for the plant’s own needs was now being supplied through a power line from Ukraine’s electricity system. It later said one of the plant’s two functioning reactors had been reconnected to that grid.

Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in the occupied town of Enerhodar near the plant, blamed Ukrainian armed forces for Thursday’s incident, saying they caused a fire in a forest near the plant.

“This was caused by the disconnection of power lines from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station as a result of provocations by Zelensky’s fighters,” Rogov wrote on Telegram.

“The disconnection itself was triggered by a fire and short circuit on the power lines.”

Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday its forces had destroyed a US-made M777 howitzer which it said Ukraine had used to shell the Zaporizhzhia plant. Satellite images showed a fire near the plant.

Energoatom said Thursday’s incident had been the first complete disconnection of the plant, which has become a hotspot in the six-month-old war.

18,000 without power

The 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.

A cameraman said there was electricity as normal in the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February, captured the plant in March and has controlled it since, though Ukrainian staff still runs it. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the site, fuelling fears of a nuclear disaster.

The United Nations is seeking access to the plant and has called for the area to be demilitarised.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials are “very, very close” to being able to visit Zapo­rizhzhia, agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said on Thursday.

Germany on Friday condemned Russia’s continued occupation of the plant. “The situation (there) is still very, very dangerous,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Nuclear experts have warned of the risk of damage to the plant’s spent nuclear fuel pools or its reactors. Cuts in power needed to cool the pools could cause a disastrous meltdown.

Paul Bracken, a national security expert and professor at the Yale School of Management, said the concern was that artillery shells or missiles could puncture the reactor walls and spread radiation far and wide, much like the 1986 accident involving the Chornobyl reactor.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2022

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