Russian forces carried out a missile strike that narrowly missed a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, officials in Kyiv said, days after an international watchdog warned that shelling at another atomic energy site risked causing a serious incident.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday said the strike nearly hit the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant in the Mykolayiv region, about 200km north of the southern frontline of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
“At night, a missile fell 300 metres from the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant,” Zelenskyy said in a Telegram channel post which included video footage purporting to show the strike and subsequent explosion. “Russia endangers the whole world. We have to stop it before it’s too late,” he added.
Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, said three reactors at the plant continued to operate and nobody was injured. It added that about 100 windows at the site were shattered and a brief power outage had occurred.
Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushchenko, on Monday accused Moscow of adopting a “nuclear terror” strategy following the invasion of Russian troops in February. “Russia, in desperation, is putting the world on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe,” he said.
A senior US official said on Monday: “We assess that the strike hit a power station near the power plant but did not directly strike the power plant.” Moscow did not immediately confirm or deny the strike.
Ukraine and Russia have repeatedly accused each other of conducting artillery strikes at another atomic energy site — the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, located in the southern town of Energodar.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, last week urged the Kremlin to surrender control of the Zaporizhzhia plant, warning that “persistent violent actions” at the site increased the risk of “a nuclear accident or incident”. The IAEA’s board adopted a resolution calling on Russia to “cease” all actions at and against the plant, and any other nuclear plant in Ukraine, to “ensure their safe and secure operation”.
Russian forces have stepped up missile attacks on critical infrastructure including electricity generators and a reservoir dam in the central city of Kryviy Rih, Zelenskyy’s hometown.
It follows a lightning counter-offensive in the north-eastern Kharkiv region that forced Moscow’s army to surrender more than 3,000 sq km of territory. It was the biggest military success by Ukraine’s forces since they repelled Russia’s attempt early in the war to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine last week claimed to have uncovered a mass grave of more than 440 people in the north-eastern city of Izyum that was recaptured as part of the operation. It said the discovery was further evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces. On Monday, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the claims were untrue. “It’s a lie,” he said.
Oleg Synegubov, governor of the Kharkiv region, said on Monday that of the “146 bodies exhumed so far, the vast majority of were civilians, including two children.”
“Some of the dead have signs of violent death, there are bodies with tied hands and traces of torture. The deceased were also found to have mine-explosive injuries, shrapnel and stab wounds,” he added in a Telegram channel post.
Ukrainian forces, increasingly armed by the west with modern weaponry, this weekend claimed they had added to territory regained in the Kharkiv region by taking parts of the east bank of the Oskil river and its reservoir. That would bring its troops closer to the border of the Russia-controlled far eastern Luhansk region. It would also put them within artillery striking range of roads supplying Russia’s largest eastern concentration of forces in northern parts of the Donetsk region.
The two regions make up the Donbas, the “liberation” of which Russia’s president claimed as justification for the invasion launched by his troops seven months ago.
In an interview aired this weekend on CBS’s 60 Minutes programme, US president Joe Biden said Ukraine was “defeating Russia”, adding that victory meant “to get Russia out of Ukraine completely”.
Addressing fears that Putin could resort to the use of tactical nuclear or chemical weapons, Biden said: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”
“It would change the face of war unlike anything since world war two,” he added.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz