Fears of radiation leak rise as Russia, Ukraine trade claims of attacks at nuclear plant

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Russia and Ukraine traded claims of rocket and artillery strikes at or near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Sunday, intensifying fears that the fighting could cause a massive radiation leak.

Russian forces took control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant soon after the war began and hold adjacent territory along the left bank of the wide Dnieper River. Ukraine controls the right bank, including the cities of Nikopol and Marhanets, each about 6 miles from the facility.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Sunday that Ukrainian forces had attacked the plant twice over the past day, and that shells fell near buildings storing reactor fuel and radioactive waste.

“One projectile fell in the area of the sixth power unit, and the other five in front of the sixth unit pumping station, which provides cooling for this reactor,” Konashenkov said, adding that radiation levels were normal.

In another apparent attack Sunday, Russian forces shot down an armed Ukrainian drone targeting one of the Zaporizhzhia plant’s spent fuel storage sites, a local official said. Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed regional official, said on the Telegram messaging app that the drone crashed onto a building’s roof, not causing any significant damage or injuring anyone.

Nearby, heavy firing during the night left parts of Nikopol without electricity, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the Dnipropetrovsk region’s governor. Rocket strikes damaged a dozen residences in Marhanets, according to Yevhen Yevtushenko, the administration head for the district that includes the city of about 45,000.

The city of Zaporizhzhia, about 25 miles up the Dnieper River from the nuclear plant, also came under Russian fire, damaging dozens of apartment buildings and homes and wounding two people, city council member Anatoliy Kurtev said. Russian forces struck a Zaporizhzhia repair shop for Ukrainian air force helicopters, Konashenkov said.

Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.

Downriver from the nuclear plant, Ukrainian rockets hit the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant and adjacent city three times on Sunday, said Vladimir Leontyev, the head of the Russia-installed local administration.

The plant’s dam is a major roadway across the river and a potentially key Russian supply route. The dam forms a reservoir that provides water for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

In eastern Ukraine, where Russian and separatist forces are trying to take control, shelling hit the large and strategically significant cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, with no casualties reported, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region’s governor. Konashenkov said Russian missile strikes killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers and reservists in and near Sloviansk. Ukrainian officials didn’t comment on the claim, in keeping with their policy of not discussing losses.

Sloviansk resident Kostiantyn Daineko told The Associated Press that he was falling asleep when an explosion blew out his apartment windows.

“I opened my eyes and saw how the window frame was flying over me, the frame and pieces of broken glass,” he said.

Russian and separatist forces hold much of the Donetsk region, one of two Russia has recognized as sovereign states.

Authorities last week began distributing iodine tablets to residents who live near the Zaporizhzhia plant in case of radiation exposure. Much of the concern centers on the cooling systems for the plant’s nuclear reactors. The systems require electricity, and the plant was temporarily knocked offline Thursday because of what officials said was fire damage to a transmission line. A cooling system failure could cause a nuclear meltdown.

Periodic shelling has damaged the power station’s infrastructure, Ukraine’s nuclear power operator, Energoatom, said Saturday.

“There are risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances, and the fire hazard is high,” it said.

The U.N.’s atomic energy agency has tried to work out an agreement with Ukrainian and Russian authorities to send a team to inspect and secure the plant, but it remained unclear when the visit might take place.

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