Zelenskyy warns of ‘dangerous’ situation as sides trade blame about nuclear plant shelling

Russian forces fired missiles and artillery on Ukrainian-held areas across the river from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, officials said Saturday, amid fears that fighting around the complex could trigger a radiation leak or an even bigger catastrophe.

As concern persisted about safety at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of Ukraine‘s Dnipropetrovsk region, said in a Telegram post that Grad missiles and artillery shells had hit the cities of Nikopol and Marhanets, both of which are across the Dnieper River, about 6 miles away from the facility.

After power lines were damaged in Nikopol “almost 5,000 families were left without electricity,” Reznichenko said, adding that homes and an educational center had also been hit.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, in a post on its Telegram channel Saturday, accused Ukrainian artillery units of shelling areas around the facility three times in the past 24 hours. Ukrainian forces hit a roof of a building that contains nuclear fuel, the post said.

Each side has repeatedly accused the other of shelling the complex in southeastern Ukraine, raising fears that the fighting could trigger a catastrophe.

NBC News could not independently verify either claim, which came after Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy warned, in a late-night video address, that the situation around the plant remained “very risky and dangerous.”

The facility was temporarily disconnected from the national power grid on Thursday for the first time in its 40-year history, heightening fears of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.

Exactly what went wrong Thursday was unclear, but Zelenskyy said that “any actions by Russia that could trigger the shutdown of the reactors will again put the plant one step away from disaster.”

Seized by Russian forces in March, the plant is still operated by Ukrainian technicians from Ukraine's state nuclear company, Energoatom.

The U.N.’s atomic energy agency has warned about the risk posed by conflict for months and has tried to send in a team to inspect and help secure the plant. Officials told The Associated Press that preparations for the visit were underway, but it remained unclear when it might take place.

Ukraine and its international allies, including the United States, have been urging Russia to hand over control of the plant.

Ukraine Russia Military Operation Nuclear Plant (Konstantin Mihalchevskiy / Sputnik via AP)
Ukraine Russia Military Operation Nuclear Plant (Konstantin Mihalchevskiy / Sputnik via AP)

With safety concerns persisting, Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents near the facility on Friday.

The pills were being distributed to those who live within a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of the plant in Enerhodar, Volodymyr Marchuk, a spokesperson for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, told NBC News.

Recipients were instructed not to take them preventively, he said, adding that they were “being distributed in case of any future radiation leak, at which time the government would instruct people to take the tablets.”

Potassium iodide tablets can block one type of radioactive material and are used in nuclear emergencies to help protect the thyroid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this week, authorities in the region also started to draw up emergency plans to evacuate civilians in the event of a disaster.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, one person was killed and another wounded in the Russian firing in the Mykolaiv region, local government officials said. Mykolaiv city is an important Black Sea port and shipbuilding center.

The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Saturday that two people were had been killed in the Russian firing on the city of Bakhmut, a significant target for Russian and separatist forces seeking to take control of the parts of the region they do not already hold.