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Ukraine's Zelenskyy warns of possible Russian sabotage at nuclear plant

A Russian serviceman guards the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in in southeastern Ukraine in May 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia has placed devices that look like explosives on top of reactors at the plant. He says Russia may carry out sabotage and blame Ukraine. Russia, in turn, says Ukraine is planning to attack the plant.
AP
A Russian serviceman guards the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in in southeastern Ukraine in May 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia has placed devices that look like explosives on top of reactors at the plant. He says Russia may carry out sabotage and blame Ukraine. Russia, in turn, says Ukraine is planning to attack the plant.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces have placed devices resembling explosives on the roofs of nuclear reactors at a power plant they control in southeastern Ukraine.

Zelenskyy made the alarming claim in his nightly video address late Tuesday, adding that he believes the Russians may soon sabotage the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and blame Ukraine.

"We have information from our intelligence that the Russian military has placed objects similar to explosives on the roof of several power units," Zelenskyy said.

"Perhaps to simulate an attack on the plant. Perhaps they have some other scenario," he added. "But in any case, the world sees — and cannot help but see — that the only source of danger to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is Russia, and no one else."

The Zaporizhzhia plant is one of the largest in Europe with six nuclear reactors. Ukrainian officials say the possible explosive devices have been placed on top of the number 3 and number 4 reactors.

Russia, in turn, claims Ukraine is planning military action against the nuclear facility.

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency alleged Ukraine was planning to hit the plant with a "warhead stuffed with nuclear waste."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday warned of "catastrophic consequences."

"Therefore we are, of course, taking all measures to prevent such threats," said Peskov.

Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian claim could be independently confirmed.

Both sides have made accusations that the other has attacked the plant since Russia seized the plant in March last year, just days after it launched a full-scale invasion. Now Russia and Ukraine both say the threat is imminent.

Ukraine's offensive is taking place nearby

The latest development comes as Ukraine is pressing a major offensive in the east and south of the country. One line of attack is about 50 miles east of the nuclear plant.

Ukraine has made limited advances since launching the offensive a month ago. But if Ukrainian troops were to break through Russian lines, the Russian troops holding the Zaporizhzhia plant would be at great risk of getting trapped there.

The Russians at the plant are already hemmed in to the north and the west by the Dnipro River, with Ukrainian forces on the opposite side of the river.

If the Ukrainians could retake the plant it would represent a major military and symbolic victory, and a huge setback for the Russians.

However, the plant has come under shelling on several occasions, and a firefight badly damaged a training facility. Full-scale combat near or at the plant would further increase the possibility of a nuclear accident.

The head of he International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, made his third visit to the plant last month to look into a separate crisis — a possible lack of water needed to cool nuclear material.

Grossi visited after a dam downriver from the plant was destroyed in early June. Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the Kakhovka dam's destruction, though most experts say the available evidence suggests Russia was responsible.

Russia controlled the dam for more than a year before it collapsed. The dam had created a reservoir used for cooling the radioactive fuel. Grossi said enough water is still available for the time being and there is no imminent danger.

Multiple safety issues at the plant

However, he said the plant's safety net continued to fray. Grossi was able to increase the number of IAEA inspectors at the plant from four to six. They move throughout the facility, monitoring systems to make sure they are still functioning as intended.

While the Russian troops control the plant, a skeleton crew of Ukrainian workers still run the nuclear facility.

Ukrainian workers who have fled the plant describe arrests and torture by the Russian troops there, saying it's more akin to a military base than a power plant.

One former worker, Roman German, told NPR's Joanna Kakissis that Russian troops often showed little concern for safety. He said they parked military vehicles with ammunition near the plant's machine room, as well as tankers filled with flammable liquids.

"Also, they mined the territory around the plant. We were told to only walk around in daylight and strictly on concrete paths," German said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.