Attack on Ukraine nuclear plant ‘suicidal’, says UN chief as he urges access to site

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<span>Photograph: Russian Emergencies Ministry Handout/EPA</span>
Photograph: Russian Emergencies Ministry Handout/EPA

The UN secretary general has called for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the shelling of Europe’s largest atomic plant at the weekend.

“Any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing,” António Guterres told a news conference in Japan on Monday, two days after attending the Hiroshima peace memorial ceremony to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.

Guterres said the International Atomic Energy Agency needed access to the plant. “We fully support the IAEA in all their efforts in relation to create the conditions of stabilisation of the plant,” he said.

Ukraine said renewed Russian shelling on Saturday had damaged three radiation sensors and hurt a worker at the Zaporizhzhia power plant, the second hit in consecutive days on the site.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the IAEA, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk, echoed the call for international inspectors and said Russian forces were attempting to cause electricity blackouts in southern Ukraine by shelling the plant, which was captured by Russian forces in early March but is still run by Ukrainian technicians. He said Zaporizhzhia staff were “working under the barrels of Russian guns”.

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Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Energoatom, said the creation of a demilitarised zone around the site and the presence of peacekeepers “would resolve this problem”. He warned of the danger of shells hitting containers of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. If two or more containers were to be broken, “it is impossible to assess the scale” of the resulting disaster.

“Such insane actions could leave to the situation spiralling out of control and it will be a Fukushima or Chornobyl,” Kotin said.

In a televised address on Sunday the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accused Russia of waging “nuclear terror” that warranted more international sanctions, this time on Moscow’s nuclear sector. “There is no such nation in the world that could feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant,” Zelenskiy said.

Russian-installed authorities in the area said Ukrainian forces hit the site with a multiple rocket launcher, damaging administrative buildings and an area near a storage facility. The Russian embassy in Washington also released a statement itemising the damage.

“Ukrainian nationalists launched an artillery strike on the territory of the specified object on 5 August. Two high-voltage power lines and a water pipeline were damaged as a result of the shelling. Only thanks to the effective and timely actions of the Russian military in covering the nuclear power facility, its critical infrastructure was not affected,” the embassy said.

The head of Zaporizhzhia’s occupying authorities, Evgeniy Balitskyi, said Ukrainian forces were to blame and had “decided to put the whole of Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe” by shelling the plant.

Ukraine says Russia has turned the plant into a military base, making it extremely hard to target the Russian troops and equipment inside. According to the New York Times, Russia has been using the plant as cover from which to fire on Ukrainian forces since mid-July.

The Washington-based thinktank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed on 3 August that Russian forces were likely to be using the power plant to “play on western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in an effort to degrade western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive”. The ISW further said that Russia was “effectively using the plant as a nuclear shield to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces and equipment”.

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It has not been possible to independently determine which side was responsible for the attack on the power station. The IAEA chief, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned on Saturday that the latest attack “underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster”.

In other developments on Monday:

  • The Russian-installed leader of the Zaporizhzhia region signed a decree allowing for a referendum on joining Russia to take place. The Russian state news agency Ria Novosti reported that the declaration was signed at a conference of 700 regional officials where all present unanimously raised their hands in support of the referendum. In his video address on Sunday night Zelenskiy warned about “pseudo referendums” in the occupied south of Ukraine. He told Russia that choosing that path would close down “any possibility of negotiations with Ukraine and the free world”.

  • Ukrainian forces again shelled Antonivskyi Bridge in the Russian-controlled city of Kherson, damaging construction equipment and delaying its reopening, Interfax news agency quoted a local Russian-appointed official as saying.

  • Two more ships, carrying corn and soya beans, departed from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, Turkey and Ukraine said, taking the total to 10 since the first ship sailed last week under a deal with Russia to unblock Ukrainian grain exports. The United Nations and Turkey brokered the agreement last month after warnings the halt in grain shipments caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could lead to severe food shortages and even outbreaks of famine in parts of the world.

  • The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said if Russia were allowed to bully Ukraine, invade and take its territory, “then it’s going to be open season, not just in Europe but around the world”.

  • One of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies has claimed the west wants to destroy Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president, who is now the virulently anti-western deputy head of the country’s security council, was speaking to the news agency Tass on the 14th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. He linked the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as “one conspiracy aimed against Russia”.

Reuters contributed to this report