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Ukraine flogs Russia after missiles buzz Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

Atomic energy agency says strike could have caused ‘catastrophe’; UN nuclear watchdog says Chernobyl radiation levels normal again after ‘very, very dangerous’ takeover by Moscow

A power-generating unit at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the city of Enerhodar, in southern Ukraine, on June 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Olexander Prokopenko, File)
A power-generating unit at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the city of Enerhodar, in southern Ukraine, on June 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Olexander Prokopenko, File)

Ukraine slammed Russia after several missiles flew at low altitude over the Zaporizhzhia power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear facility, warning that Moscow’s invasion could lead to a “nuclear catastrophe.”

Ukraine’s state-run atomic energy company Energoatom said cruise missiles flew over the plant during an airstrike that targeted the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, which local authorities said killed at least one person and wounded another.

“Missiles lying at a low altitude directly over the site of the ZNPP [Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant], where there are seven nuclear facilities with a huge amount of nuclear material, poses huge risks,” Energoatom’s acting chief Petro Kotin said, according to Reuters.

“After all, missiles could hit one or more nuclear facility, and this threatens a nuclear and radiation catastrophe around the world.”

A Russian assault on the plant in March drew global concern that the fighting could accidentally trigger a nuclear accident at the plant. Fires broke out at the plant during the fighting, but reactors were not affected.

Energoatom said Russia was still keeping heavy equipment and ammunition at the facility.

Russia did not immediately comment on Energoatom’s statement.

Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi talks to journalists as he arrives with an IAEA team to Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked concerns around the nation’s nuclear facilities, including at Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst-ever nuclear accident.

The head of the UN atomic watchdog said Tuesday that Russia’s temporary takeover of the Chernobyl site was “very, very dangerous” and raised radiation levels, but they have now returned to normal.

Russian troops took over the site on February 24, the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, taking Ukrainian soldiers prisoner and detaining civilian staff.

“The situation was absolutely abnormal and very, very dangerous,” Rafael Grossi told reporters as he arrived at the sarcophagus that covers the nuclear reactor’s radioactive remains.

Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was visiting the site on the 36th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Russian troops pulled out of the site in late March as they regrouped after being stymied in their advance on nearby Kyiv.

Grossi said radiation levels were now “normal.”

But he added that “there have been some moments when the levels have gone up because of the movement of the heavy equipment that Russian forces were bringing here and when they left.”

Trenches and firing positions sit in the highly radioactive soil adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukrainian officials have said Russian soldiers may have been exposed to radiation after digging fortifications in “many places” at the site and stirring up clouds of dust with their armored vehicles.

On April 26, 1986, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction destroyed the reactor in an accident that was initially covered up by the Soviet authorities.

Many hundreds died though the exact figure remains disputed.

Eventually, 350,000 people were evacuated from a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius around the plant, an exclusion zone that remains uninhabited, apart from some elderly residents who returned despite an official ban.

The Chernobyl power station’s three other reactors were successively closed, with the latest shutting off in 2000.

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