Russia Is Now Openly Threatening to Bomb a Nuclear Power Plant

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
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Russia has threatened that it is prepared to blow up Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, in the latest indication that Russia’s war in Ukraine could be headed towards a nuclear disaster.

The head of Russia's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troops nuclear power plant, Major General Valery Vasiliev, claimed that Russians had mined the nuclear power plant, according to Energoatam, a Ukrainian state nuclear agency.

“There will be either Russian land or a scorched desert,” Vasiliev said, according to Energoatam. “The enemy knows that the station will be either Russian or no one's. We are ready for the consequences of this step.”

Located in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar along the Dnipro river, which is now Russian-occupied, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is standing perilously close to the frontlines of battle between the two warring countries. On Friday, Russians shelled the power plant twice, damaging critical infrastructure and radiation sensors.

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The attacks continued throughout the weekend. Energoatom said in a Telegram post on Friday the attacks came within hours of each other, with the second attack using rocket-propelled grenades that struck Zaporizhzhia “near one of the power units where the nuclear reactor is located,” the company said.

“There are risks of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances. Fire danger is high.” On Sunday, as more explosions could be heard, the company posted again, warning: “This time a nuclear catastrophe was miraculously avoided, but miracles cannot last forever.”

The plant is in control of the Russians though it is handled by Ukrainians, with both sides blaming each other for the attacks. As tensions of the power plant have ratcheted up, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a grim warning following talks with European Council President Charles Michel.

“God forbid something irreparable will happen—and no one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination," Zelensky said. "Russian nuclear terror requires a stronger response from the international community—sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry and nuclear fuel.”

Zelensky’s condemnation was echoed by international observers. “Any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing,” UN secretary general António Guterres said Monday. Speaking at a news conference in Japan two days after attending a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima for the 77th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bombing, Guterres also called for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be given access to the imperiled plant. “We fully support the IAEA in all their efforts in relation to create the conditions of stabilization of the plant,” he said.

Russian authorities confirmed damage at the plant, but said it had been caused by an artillery strike launched by “Ukrainian nationalists.” “Two high-voltage power lines and a water pipeline were damaged as a result of the shelling,” the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “Only thanks to the effective and timely actions of the Russian military in covering the nuclear power facility, its critical infrastructure was not affected.”

Doubling down on denials of Kremlin culpability, the Russian-appointed Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Administration chief Evgeniy Balitskyi thundered on Telegram: “The Nazi leadership of Kyiv has completely lost touch with reality,” adding that “Ukrainian terrorists decided to put the whole of Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.”

On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the shelling of the plant by “Ukrainian armed forces” was “fraught with catastrophic consequences” for Europe. But Ukrainian media reports suggested that Russian troops were themselves threatening to blow up the plant rather than let it fall out of their control. Vasiliev reportedly announced that his soldiers occupying the site had “mined all important objects” at the plant, and said that Russian fighters must be ready to “fulfil an important order...You must understand that we have no other way. If there is the toughest order, we must fulfil it with honor.”

News of the dangerous strikes comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week accused Russia of using the plant as a “nuclear shield” by turning it into a military base. By stationing its troops there, the Kremlin was acting with the “height of irresponsibility,” Blinken said, as exchanges of fire could lead to disaster.

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