KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian missile blasted a crater near a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on Monday, damaging nearby industrial equipment but not hitting its three reactors. The Ukrainian authorities denounced this decision as an act of “nuclear terrorism”.
The missile struck within 300 yards (328 yards) of reactors at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant near the city of Yuzhnoukrainsk in Mykolaiv province, leaving a 2-meter (6 1/2ft) hole deep and 4 meters (13 feet) wide, according to Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom.
The reactors were operating normally and no employees were injured, he said. But the proximity of the strike has reignited fears that Russia’s nearly 7-month war in Ukraine could produce a radioactive disaster.
This nuclear power plant is the second largest in Ukraine after the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has shot several times.
Next recent setbacks on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened last week to intensify Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Throughout the war, Russia has targeted Ukraine’s power generation and transmission equipment, causing blackouts and endangering the safety systems of the country’s nuclear power plants.
The industrial complex that includes the South Ukraine plant is located along the Southern Bug River, approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv. The attack caused the temporary shutdown of a nearby hydroelectric plant and shattered more than 100 windows in the complex, Ukrainian authorities said. The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said three power lines were cut but later reconnected.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry released a black-and-white video showing two large balls of fire erupting one after another in the dark, followed by showers of incandescent sparks, at 19 minutes past midnight. The ministry and Energoatom called the strike “nuclear terrorism.”
The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on the attack.
Russian forces have occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, since the start of the invasion. The bombings severed the factory’s transmission lines, forcing operators to shut down its six reactors to avoid a radioactive catastrophe. Russia and Ukraine swapped responsibility for the strikes.
The IAEA, which posted monitors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, said a main transmission line has been reconnected Friday, providing the electricity it needs to cool its reactors.
But the mayor of Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhia factory is located, reported renewed Russian shelling on Monday in the city’s industrial zone.
While warning Friday of a possible intensification of strikes, Putin said his forces had so far acted with restraint, but warned that “if the situation develops in this way, our response will be more serious.”
“Just recently, the Russian armed forces launched some hard-hitting strikes,” he said. “Let’s consider this as warning strikes.”
The latest Russian bombardment killed at least eight civilians and injured 22, the Ukrainian presidency announced on Monday. The governor of the northeast Kharkiv region, now largely in Ukrainian hands, said Russian shelling killed four medical workers trying to evacuate patients from a psychiatric hospital and injured two patients.
The mayor of the Russian-occupied eastern city of Donetsk, meanwhile, said Ukrainian shelling had killed 13 civilians and injured eight.
Patricia Lewis, director of international security research at Chatham House think tank in London, said attacks at the factory in Zaporizhzhia and Monday’s strike on the power plant in southern Ukraine indicated that the Russian military was trying to put Ukraine’s nuclear power plants out of service before winter.
“It’s a very, very dangerous and illegal act to target a nuclear power plant,” Lewis told The Associated Press. “Only the generals will know the intent, but there is clearly a pattern.”
“What they seem to do every time is try to cut the power to the reactor,” she said. “It’s a very clumsy way to do it, because how accurate are these missiles?”
Energy is needed to run the pumps that circulate cooling water to the reactors, preventing overheating and – in the worst case – a radiation-generating nuclear fuel meltdown.
Other recent Russian strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure have targeted power plants in the north and a dam in the south. They came in response to a massive Ukrainian counterattack in the east of the country that reclaimed Russian-occupied territory in the Kharkiv region.
Analysts have noted that beyond reclaiming the territory, challenges remain to retain it. In a video address on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy cryptically said of the effort: “I cannot reveal all the details, but thanks to the Ukrainian Security Service, we are now confident that the occupiers will not have no feet on Ukrainian soil.
Ukraine’s successes in Kharkiv — Russia’s biggest defeat since its forces were pushed back from around Kyiv at the start of the invasion — have fueled scant public criticism in Russia and added military and diplomatic pressure on Putin. Nationalist Kremlin critics have questioned why Moscow failed to plunge Ukraine into darkness by striking all of its major nuclear power plants.
In other developments:
– A governor said Ukraine had taken over the village of Bilogorivka in the Russian-occupied eastern Lugansk region. Russia did not recognize the request.
– Russian-installed leaders in Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson regions reiterated calls on Monday for referendums to formally bind their regions to Russia. These officials have previously discussed such plans, but referendums have been repeatedly delayed, possibly due to insufficient popular support.
— The Supreme Court of the Russian-occupied Lugansk region on Monday convicted a former Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe interpreter and another unspecified person of high treason. Both were sentenced to 13 years in prison.
—The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have closed their borders Monday to most Russian citizens in response to internal Russian support for the war in Ukraine. Poland will join the ban on September 26.
– Mega-pop star Alla Pugacheva has become the most prominent Russian celebrity to criticize the war, describing Russia in an Instagram post on Sunday as “an outcast” and saying that his soldiers were dying for “illusory purposes”. Valery Fadeyev, the head of the Russian President’s Human Rights Council, accused Pugacheva of hypocritically citing humanitarian concerns to justify her criticism and predicted that popular artists like her would enjoy less public influence after the war.
AP reporter John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, contributed.
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Karl Ritter and Jon Gambrell, Associated Press