KYIV: Ukraine narrowly escaped disaster during fighting at the weekend that rocked Europe's largest atomic power plant with a barrage of shells, some falling near reactors and damaging a radioactive waste storage building, the UN nuclear watchdog said.
It was not clear which side was responsible for at least a dozen explosions at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which has been under Russian control since soon after the war started on February 24 but is across the Dnipro river from areas controlled by Kyiv.
The shelling comes as battles raged further east following troop movements from around Ukraine's recently recaptured Kherson, further south along the Dnipro.
Whoever fired on the plant was taking "huge risks and gambling with many people's lives", said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "We are talking metres, not kilometres.
"We were fortunate a potentially serious nuclear incident did not happen. Next time, we may not be so lucky," Grossi said late on Sunday in a statement, describing the situation as a "close call".
Repeated shelling of the plant during the war has raised concern about a grave disaster in the country that suffered the world's worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chornobyl meltdown.
Radiation levels remained normal and there were no reports of casualties, the IAEA said. While there was no direct impact on nuclear safety and security systems, "the shelling came dangerously close to them", Grossi said.
Russia's response to its military setbacks has included a barrage of missile strikes, many on power facilities that have left much of the country without electricity as winter sets in and temperatures drop below freezing.
Grossi spoke to world leaders and reiterated the need for a nuclear safety and security protection zone around Zaporizhzhia, the IAEA said.
The head of Russia's state-run nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said on Monday it had discussed Sunday's shelling with the IAEA, and said there was a risk of a nuclear accident.
"The plant is at risk of a nuclear accident. We were in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all night," Interfax quoted Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev as saying.
Rosatom has controlled the facility through a subsidiary since President Vladimir Putin in October ordered Russia to formally seize the plant and transfer Ukrainian staff to a Russian entity.
Kyiv controls territory across the river from the power station, including the regional capital. The Zaporizhzhia plant itself and territory south of it fell to Russia in March.
Both sides traded blame for the latest shelling, as they have done repeatedly in recent months after attacks on the plant or near it.
Citing information provided by plant management, an IAEA team on the ground said damaged infrastructure included a radioactive waste and storage building, cooling pond systems, a cable to one of the reactors, and a bridge to another reactor and auxiliary buildings.
The team plans to conduct an assessment on Monday, Grossi said, but Russian nuclear power operator Rosenergoatom said there would be curbs on what the team could inspect.
"If they want to inspect a facility that has nothing to do with nuclear safety, access will be denied," Renat Karchaa, an adviser to Rosenergoatom's CEO, told the Tass news agency.
The Zaporizhzhia plant provided about a fifth of Ukraine's electricity before Russia's invasion, and has been forced to operate on back-up generators a number of times. It has six Soviet-designed VVER-1000 V-320 water-cooled and water-moderated reactors containing Uranium 235.
The reactors are shut down but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if the power driving the cooling systems is cut. Shelling has repeatedly cut power lines.
Russia's defence ministry said Ukraine fired shells at power lines supplying the plant. Ukraine's nuclear energy firm Energoatom said Russia's military shelled the site, accusing it of nuclear blackmail and actions that were "endangering the whole world". - Reuters