Is Russia threatening to blow up a Ukrainian nuclear plant?

Last week I wrote about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station which is the biggest nuclear reactor in Europe. The operational plant is located on the front lines of the ongoing battle between Ukraine and Russia. The people operating the plant are Ukrainians but the area around it has been seized by Russian forces and there are reports the Russians have been setting up their artillery near the plant as a way to shield it from any return fire.

The Russians have been firing from the cover of the Zaporizhzhia station since mid-July, Ukrainian military and civilian officials said, sending rockets over the river at Nikopol and other targets.

It is, in effect, a free shot. Ukraine cannot unleash volleys of shells in return using American-provided advanced rocket systems, which have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front line. Doing so would risk striking one of the six pressurized water reactors or highly radioactive waste in storage. And Russia knows it.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned last week that the situation was “completely out of control.” He demanded that his teams be allowed to access the site to ensure the operation was still being operated safely. But over the weekend the situation got worse when there was shelling near the plant. Both Russia and Ukraine are blaming one another for the strikes.

On Friday, explosions rang out at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex, the biggest of its kind in Europe, reigniting fears of a potential disaster.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the plant, which was taken over by Russian forces in early March, along with the town of Enerhodar, where the complex is located.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky blamed Moscow for the attack, calling the strikes a “brazen crime” and an “act of terror.”

“Today, the occupiers created another extremely risky situation for everyone in Europe,” he said in his nightly address on Friday.

The Russian defense ministry denied the claim, saying the Ukrainians had carried out three artillery strikes on the plant and surrounding area.

A strike which hit one of the operating reactors could potentially lead to radiation being spread into the atmosphere or even to a meltdown of one of the reactors. Today the IAEA called the shelling “suicidal.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for international inspectors to be given access to the sprawling nuclear site as fears grew of a disaster after the weekend strikes left the plant damaged but still operational.

“Any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing,” he said Monday in Tokyo after attending a ceremony in Hiroshima to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing.

However, Ukraine’s desire to see the plant demilitarized isn’t purely about safety. Russia has been firing missiles at Ukrainian positions from the site, making it more difficult for Ukrainian soldiers to advance on Russia positions. So they have a strategic interest in making this into a crisis that could result in additional pressure to force Russia away from the plant. Keep that in mind because this next claim is coming from the Ukrainian energy company that is operating the nuclear plant. Energoatom claims Russia is prepared to blow up the plant rather than leave the area:

Energoatom claims that the head of the radiation, chemical and biological protection troops of the Russian armed forces, Major General Valerii Vasyliev, who now commands the garrison at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, told his soldiers that “there will be either Russian land or a scorched desert here”.

The press release quotes Vasyliev as telling his troops, “As you know, we have mined all the important facilities of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. And we’re not hiding it from the enemy. We warned them. The enemy knows that the station will be either Russian or no-one’s.”

Is this true? Is it a bluff by the Russians to maintain control of a site from which they can attack without repercussions? Or is Energoatom making this claim to apply pressure to Russia and potentially force them out of the area? At the moment it’s hard to tell which side is telling the truth since both sides stand to benefit strategically from the version of events they are presenting. Obviously if it is true then Russia is holding Ukraine and potentially part of Europe hostage. Would Putin be crazy enough to create Chernobyl on purpose?

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