Fires caused by shelling cut the last remaining power line to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday, temporarily disconnecting it from Ukraine’s national grid for the first time in nearly 40 years of operation, the country’s nuclear power firm, Energoatom, has said.
There have been growing international concerns about safety at Europe’s largest nuclear plant. It has been occupied by Russian forces since the start of the war, and they are now using it to house military vehicles and equipment.
The White House called on Russia to agree to a demilitarised zone around the plant, after the US president, Joe Biden, spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Biden congratulated him on the country’s 31st Independence Day, celebrated on Wednesday, which was also the six-month mark since Russia invaded.
“I know it is a bittersweet anniversary, but I made it clear that the United States would continue to support Ukraine and its people as they fight to defend their sovereignty,” Biden tweeted after the phone call.
Negotiations are under way for the UN’s nuclear watchdog to visit the site, and Ukraine’s top nuclear official told the Guardian that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors could arrive by the end of the month.
Until then, continued fighting puts the plant, and potentially much of Europe, at risk. A nuclear accident could spread radiation far across the continent.
The plant was disconnected twice from the Ukrainian grid on Thursday after a blaze at the ash pits of a nearby coal-fired power plant affected the fourth and last connection into the plant’s reactors. Three other lines had already been taken out during the war.
“The actions of the invaders caused a complete disconnection of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from the power grid – for the first time in the history of the plant,” Energoatom said on Thursday.
The severing of that connection briefly caused a blackout in the Zaporizhzhia region, said Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-appointed governor for the area. Power has now been restored.
Disconnecting the plant from the grid is dangerous because it raises the risk of catastrophic failure of the electricity-run cooling systems for its reactors and spent fuel rods.
During the outage, the plant still received supplies of electricity from one remaining backup line connected to the nearby conventional power plant, Energoatom said. There were three of these lines before the war, but two have been cut.
If all external connections go down, it must rely on diesel-fuelled generators for power. If they break down, engineers only have 90 minutes to stave off dangerous overheating.
Zelenskiy claimed late on Thursday that the world narrowly avoided a radiation accident. “If the diesel generators had not turned on … if our station staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would have already been forced to overcome the consequences of a radiation accident,” he said in an evening address.
“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster.”
He called on the IAEA and other world bodies to act much faster to force Russian troops to leave the territory of the station.
The head of Energoatom’s told the Guardian on Wednesday that Russian engineers had drawn up a blueprint to permanently disconnect the plant from the national grid and connect it to the Russian power network instead. Petro Kotin said the plan was ostensibly aimed at maintaining power supply to the plant if all connections to Ukraine were cut off by fighting, as they were on Thursday. But Ukraine fears Russia may deliberately cut the lines.
The latest crisis at the plant, which has previously been threatened by fires, came as the death toll from a Russian rocket attack on a railway station and village in south-central Dnipropetrovsk region rose to 25.
The three rocket strikes also injured 31, according to Ukraine’s authorities. The area was hit on Independence Day – an anniversary overshadowed by US warnings that Russia may be planning to “step up” attacks.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had successfully hit a military train, killing 200 Ukrainian soldiers. It said the train was set to deliver arms to the frontline in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. It is impossible to corroborate the claims. Ukraine’s authorities do not regularly share information about their military losses.
At least some of the victims appear to have been civilians. Pictures and footage of the aftermath aired by Ukraine’s public broadcaster Suspilne showed at least one destroyed house in the village and extensive damage elsewhere. Those interviewed by Suspilne said fellow villagers had died.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s presidential office, said two children, aged six and 11, were killed, the latter when their house was destroyed. Zelenskiy said five people were killed while sitting in a car.
Tetyana Kvitnytska, the deputy director of health at the Dnipropetrovsk regional military administration, said four children were among the injured, three of whom were in a serious condition. She said there were shrapnel wounds, burns and fractures.
Only two pictures have been released so far of the railway carriages that were hit, which appear burnt out and flattened in places. Tymoshenko said five passenger carriages caught fire and a utility building at the railway station had been hit.
The EU’s foreign affairs representative, Josep Borrell, wrote on Twitter: “The EU strongly condemns another terrible Russian attack on the civilian population in Chaplyny on Ukraine’s independence day. Those responsible for Russian missile terror will be held accountable.”
Russian and Ukrainian forces have reached a relative stalemate in recent months, partly after the west supplied new long-range missiles that have hampered Russia’s supply lines and ability to continue with its offensives. Ukraine says it also does not have the weapons it needs to launch a decisive counteroffensive.