The “period of relative calm” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine has come to an abrupt end, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Renewed shelling over the weekend at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant resurrected worries over the possibility of a nuclear accident and increased the finger-pointing between Kyiv and Moscow at a time when both nations are struggling to gain an upper hand in the months-long war.
Russia took control of the site in March shortly after it invaded Ukraine. While reactors at the site have been shut down since September, the possibility of a nuclear accident remains.
“Until we have this plant protected, the possibility of the nuclear catastrophe is there,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told CBS News on Sunday.
The shelling over the weekend was some of the most intense in recent months, and Grossi called it a “close call.”
“Once again, we were fortunate that a potentially serious nuclear incident did not happen,” Grossi said. “Next time, we may not be so lucky. We must do everything in our power to make sure there is no next time.”
Damage to the plant was reported in several places, including a “radioactive waste and storage building, cooling pond sprinkler systems, an electrical cable to one of the diesel generators, condensate storage tanks, and to a bridge between a reactor and its auxiliary buildings, according to IAEA experts.
“Even though there was no direct impact on key nuclear safety and security systems at the plant, the shelling came dangerously close to them. We are talking meters, not kilometers,” Grossi said. “Whoever is shelling at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is taking huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives.”
The nuclear watchdog has been careful not to put blame on either country for the attacks as it remains unclear who is responsible.
Ukraine has accused Russia of trying to cut its citizens off from electricity as winter approaches after the Kremlin has carried out a series of bombings and airstrikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. Ukraine has also accused Russia of storing heavy weapons inside the nuclear site knowing that Ukraine can’t attack over the risk of a nuclear accident.
“Russia must withdraw all its militants from there and stop shelling the station,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address Monday.
The Russian Defense Ministry, on the other hand, blamed Ukraine for the shelling with the head of Russia’s state-run atomic energy agency, Rosatom, saying that the plant is indeed “at risk of a nuclear accident.”
The nuclear watchdog has for months been calling for the nations to agree to a demilitarized zone around the plant, though there are no signs that the countries are close to such an agreement.
“I’m not giving up until this zone has become a reality. As the ongoing apparent shelling demonstrates, it is needed more than ever,” Grossi said.