An unstoppable wind of “radioactive contamination” could spread over Europe if the West does not act to stop Russia’s seizure of the continent's largest nuclear power plant, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has warned.
Last weekend's artillery barrages at Zaporizhzhia, in Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine, have sparked international fears of a Chernobyl-style disaster.
Fighting around the facility, located on the banks of the Dniper River, has intensified as Ukrainian forces battle to reclaim territories occupied by Russia in the south.
Both Moscow and Kyiv traded blame for the shelling around the power plant, which was captured by Russian fighters in early March.
Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company warned the bombardment had damaged radiation sensors, after strikes close to a storage facility for spent fuel at the plant.
Russia's defence ministry said on Monday that Ukrainian attacks had damaged high-voltage power lines into the Soviet-era plant and forced it to reduce output by two of its six reactors to "prevent disruption".
The clashes prompted calls for the United Nation’s atomic watchdog and international peacekeepers to be deployed on the ground to ensure the plant remains safe.
In his overnight address late on Sunday, President Zelensky said: “There is no such nation in the world that can feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant.
“God forbid, if something irreparable happens, no one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination.”
The wartime leader proposed the introduction of sanctions on Russian nuclear energy and uranium exports as part of a possible Western response to "the threat that Russia created by striking at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant".
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The invaders have forced the plant’s Ukrainian technicians to remain working, in often violent conditions, at the facility in order to keep it running. The Russian-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region said it was operating normally.
Russia 'openly blackmailing the whole world'
Ukraine’s military intelligence chiefs on Monday accused Russia of mining energy units at the plant, according to the Interfax news agency.
Energoatom, Ukraine's state nuclear power firm, claimed Russia was “openly blackmailing the whole world” by threatening to detonate the explosives unless Ukraine hands over permanent control of the facility.
Local reports cited comments by Valery Vasiliev, Russia’s Major General, which have since been deleted from pro-Kremlin channels on the Telegram messaging app, insisting “there will be either Russian land or a scorched desert”.
Russian forces are also using the fighting to try to cause power cuts in southern Ukraine, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk, the country's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Monday.
"Russian occupants aim to destroy the plant's infrastructure, cause damage to all transmission lines - and they are used to transport electricity to the Ukrainian grid - and to cause blackouts in the south of Ukraine," he said.
Amid mounting fears of a nuclear catastrophe, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, urged an end to the “suicidal” military operations around the plant.
The White House called on Russia on Monday to cease all military operations around nuclear facilities in Ukraine.
"Fighting near a nuclear plant is dangerous," Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, called for a Western-backed peacekeeping mission to create a "demilitarised zone" around the facility.
“The decision that we demand from the world community and all our partners ... is to withdraw the invaders from the territory of the station and create a demilitarised zone on the territory of the station,” he said.
"The presence of peacekeepers in this zone and the transfer of control of it to them, and then also control of the station to the Ukrainian side would resolve this problem."