Ukraine can strike Russian targets around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant because it is built to withstand terror attacks, a Western official said on Thursday amid fears of a nuclear disaster.
Kremlin forces have transformed Europe’s largest nuclear plant into a “safe zone” used to launch artillery fire at targets in Ukrainian-held territories on the western bank of the Dniper river, with little chance of return fire.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog has warned that the situation at the occupied power plant is “completely out of control”.
With Russian kit, including highly combustible ammunition, stored in Zaporizhzhia’s engine rooms, analysts believe Moscow is using the threat of a nuclear meltdown at the site to deter future donations of heavy weaponry by Ukraine’s Western allies.
But the Western official said Ukraine need not be deterred from striking Russian targets in the areas because the nuclear plant was built to withstand aircraft strikes on reactors.
“Ukraine will consider very carefully how to avoid taking major risks around the site,” the source said. “But I would bear in mind that nuclear power plants are designed to withstand terrorist attacks, including aircraft hitting reactors.
“Please don’t think we’re looking at a Chernobyl-like situation… that’s not the case.”
Kyiv last month used US-supplied kamikaze drones to strike Russian weapons and troops sheltering between the plant’s cooling towers, some 150 yards from a reactor.
The plant, in the south-eastern city of Enerhodar, was captured by Russia in early March, days after its forces invaded Ukraine.
Russian forces had hoped it could be used as a base to fight back against a Ukrainian counter-offensive aimed at retaking areas in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
But the Western official insisted Kyiv’s charge into the south of the country would not be hampered by the Russian’s entrenched position at the plant, adding: “It could always be surrounded or bypassed by Ukraine.”
A Russian-installed official in Ukraine on Wednesday said Ukrainian forces had used Western-supplied weapons to pummel the plant, which has two of its six reactors operating.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said the intervention was likely to be designed to stoke Western fears of a nuclear disaster in the hope that allies downgrade their military support for Ukraine.
“Russian officials are framing Ukraine as irresponsibly using Western-provided weapons and risking nuclear disaster to dissuade Western and other allied states from providing additional military support to Ukraine’s looming southern counter-offensive,” it said in its daily briefing.
There are still major concerns about the conditions under which the plant is operating, with Russia forcing its Ukrainian staff to remain and run the facility.
Rafael Grossi, the head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, has appealed for access to the nuclear plant to determine whether it poses a danger.
“We can’t afford faulty communication with the plant in areas relevant to safety. We know of allegations that live ammunition is stored in the plant, that there are attacks on the power plant,” he said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.
Talks with Kyiv to secure access to the plant are ongoing, but any visit is highly unlikely while the facility is under Russian control. Igor Vishnevetsky, a Russian foreign ministry official, said Moscow was willing to assist the International Atomic Energy Agency in arranging a visit, but claimed UN bosses had refused to approve the trip.
The Zaporizhzhia plant is expected to become a prominent feature of Ukraine’s southern counter-offensive. Western officials on Thursday said Russia had been forced to move resources away from its grinding assault on the eastern Donbas region to take up defensive positions around Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
“Russia’s presence west of the Dniper now looks more vulnerable,” a source said. “Russia’s offensive capabilities will likely diminish in the Donetsk Oblast in the coming weeks as some Russian forces are sent to reinforce the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.”
US politicians and military officials said the Russian shortfalls presented Ukraine with a perfect opportunity to hit back at the occupiers.