IAEA chief warns of ‘very real risk’ of disaster at Ukraine nuclear plant

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The head of the U.N.’s atomic agency warned on Saturday about the “very real risk of a nuclear disaster” due to the shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the bombing on Friday at Zaporizhzhia, the biggest nuclear facility in Europe, with both sides calling it an act of terror.

“I’m extremely concerned by the shelling yesterday at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement on Saturday.

“Any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” Grossi added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces fired twice at the facility. The attack amounted to “an open, brazen crime, an act of terror,” he said.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense blamed Kyiv for three artillery strikes hitting the area of the plant, calling them “acts of nuclear terrorism.”

“According to Ukraine, there has been no damage to the reactors themselves and no radiological release,” Grossi said. “However, there is damage elsewhere on the site.”

Grossi reiterated his call for a team of IAEA experts to be able to visit the Zaporizhzhia site, to provide “impartial and independent information about the status” of the facility.

“The Ukrainian staff operating the plant under Russian occupation must be able to carry out their important duties without threats or pressure undermining not only their own safety but also that of the facility itself,” Grossi said.

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko has rejected a potential IAEA visit to the plant as long as it is still under Russian control, as it has been since March.

Day-to-day operations of the facility remain in the hands of Ukrainian workers, while staff from Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear operator, also are on site.