SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Russia and Ukraine traded allegations of rocket and artillery fire at or near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Sunday, heightening fears that the fighting could cause a massive radioactive leak.
Russian forces took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shortly after the start of the war and hold the adjacent territory along the left bank of the wide Dnieper River. Ukraine controls the right bank, including the towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, each about 6 miles from the facility.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces attacked the plant twice during the day and shells fell near buildings storing fuel and radioactive waste. .
“One projectile fell in the area of the sixth power unit, and the other five fell in front of the sixth unit pumping station, which provides cooling for this reactor,” Konashenkov said, adding that radiation levels were normal. .
In another apparent attack on Sunday, Russian forces shot down an armed Ukrainian drone targeting one of the Zaporizhzhia plant’s spent fuel storage sites, a local official said. Vladimir Rogov, a regional manager based in Russia, said on the Telegram messaging app that the drone crashed on the roof of a building, without causing significant damage or injuring anyone.
Nearby, heavy gunfire overnight left parts of Nikopol without power, said Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. Rocket fire damaged a dozen residences in Marhanets, according to Yevhen Yevtushenko, the head of the district administration which includes the town of around 45,000 people.
The town of Zaporizhzhia, about 40 km up the Dnieper from the nuclear power plant, also came under Russian fire, damaging dozens of buildings and homes and injuring two people, city council member Anatoliy Kurtev said. Russian forces hit a repair shop in Zaporizhzhia for Ukrainian Air Force helicopters, Konashenkov said.
Neither party’s claims could be independently verified.
Downstream of the nuclear plant, Ukrainian rockets hit the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station and the adjacent town three times on Sunday, said Vladimir Leontiev, the head of the local administration based in Russia.
The factory dam is an important route across the river and a potentially key Russian supply route. The dam forms a reservoir that supplies water to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
In eastern Ukraine, where Russian and separatist forces are trying to take control, shelling hit the strategically important cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, with no casualties, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the region of Donetsk. Konashenkov said Russian missile fire killed 250 Ukrainian soldiers and reservists in and around Sloviansk. Ukrainian officials have not commented on this claim, in accordance with their policy of not discussing casualties.
Sloviansk resident Kostiantyn Daineko told The Associated Press he was falling asleep when an explosion ripped through the windows of his apartment.
“I opened my eyes and saw how the window frame was flying above me, the frame and pieces of broken glass,” he said.
Russian and separatist forces hold much of the Donetsk region, one of two Russia has recognized as sovereign states.
Last week, authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents who live near the Zaporizhzhia plant in the event of radiation exposure. Much of the concern centers on the plant’s nuclear reactor cooling systems. The systems require electricity, and the plant was temporarily shut down on Thursday due to what officials said was fire damage to a transmission line. Failure of the cooling system could cause nuclear meltdown.
Periodic shelling has damaged the infrastructure of the power plant, Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom said on Saturday.
“There are risks of hydrogen leakage and spraying of radioactive substances, and the risk of fire is high,” he said.
The UN’s atomic energy agency has tried to strike a deal with Ukrainian and Russian authorities to send a team to inspect and secure the plant, but it’s still unclear when the visit might take place.