The Zaporizhzhia plant, which lies in an area of Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, is Europe’s biggest nuclear power station and the area has been repeatedly hit by shelling with both sides blaming each other for the dangerous attacks.
Ahead of Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive, fears have increased that a nuclear disaster could occur amid rising military activity around Zaporizhzhia.
“Russians are preparing massive provocation and imitation of the accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the nearest hours,” the Ukrainian defence ministry’s intelligence directorate said on Friday.
“They are planning to attack the territory of the ZNPP [Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant]. After that, they will announce the leakage of the radioactive substances,” the intelligence directorate said in a statement and later on social media channels.
Reports of radioactive material leaking from the plant would cause a global incident and force an investigation by international authorities, during which all hostilities would be stopped, the directorate said. Russia would then use that pause in fighting to regroup its forces and better prepare to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the intelligence service said.
Experts say that reports of a radiation leak at the plant would be followed by immediate evacuations, which could be extremely complex in a war zone. According to experts, for many people, the fear of being contaminated by radiation could also be more dangerous than the radiation itself.
Last week, witnesses said Russian military forces were enhancing defensive positions in and around the nuclear power plant ahead of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.
In preparation for the planned radioactive incident, Russia had disrupted the scheduled rotation of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who are based at the plant, Ukraine’s intelligence directorate said.
The report of a planned incident at Zaporizhzhia was repeated in a tweet by Ukraine’s representative to the United Nations in New York, Sergiy Kyslytsya, who said the events could unfold “in the coming hours”.
The directorate statement did not provide any proof to support its claims and the Vienna-based IAEA, which frequently posts updates on the situation at the power plant, has made no mention of any disruption to its timetable.
Kyiv and Moscow have repeatedly accused each other of attacking the plant.
In February, Russia said Ukraine was planning to stage a nuclear incident on its territory and pin the blame on Moscow.
Moscow has also repeatedly accused Kyiv of planning “false-flag” operations with non-conventional weapons, using biological or radioactive materials.
No such attacks have taken place so far.
The IAEA’s Director General Rafael Grossi will brief the UN Security Council next week on the security situation at Zaporizhzhia and his plan for safeguards at the site. Grossi, who last visited the plant in March, has upped his efforts to reach an agreement with Ukraine and Russia to ensure the plant’s protection during the fighting.
In a statement last week, Grossi said: “It is very simple: don’t shoot at the plant and don’t use the plant as a military base”.
“It should be in the interest of everyone to agree on a set of principles to protect the plant during the conflict,” he added.
Zaporizhzhia once supplied approximately 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity and continued to function in the early months of Russia’s invasion, despite frequent shelling, before halting power production entirely in September.
None of Ukraine’s six Soviet-era reactors has since generated electricity but the Zaporizhzhia facility remains connected to the Ukrainian power grid for its own needs, notably to cool the plant’s nuclear reactors.