Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Fears over a possible radiation leak at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant continued on Saturday as both sides traded blame for the shelling nearby. Ukraine said Russian forces fired on areas directly opposite the facility across the river, and Russia claimed Ukrainian shells hit a building storing nuclear fuel.
Authorities distributed iodine tablets to residents living near the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in case of radiation exposure, which can cause health problems.
Much of the concern centers on the cooling systems for the plant’s nuclear reactors. The systems need power to run and the plant was temporarily taken offline on Thursday because officials said it was fire damage to a transmission line. A failure of the cooling system could cause a meltdown.
Russian troops occupied the nuclear power plant complex early in the six-month-old war, but local Ukrainian workers have kept it running. The Ukrainian and Russian governments have repeatedly accused themselves of shelling the complex and nearby areas, fueling fears of a potential disaster.
Regular shelling has damaged the power plant’s infrastructure, Ukrainian nuclear power plant operator Energoatom said on Saturday. “There is a risk of hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances, and the risk of fire is high,” it said.
Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region governor Valentyn Reznichenko said Saturday that Russian Grad rockets and artillery shells hit the towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, each 10 kilometers (6 miles) across the Dnieper from the plant.
However, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukrainian forces fired on the facility from Marhanets. Last day, 17 Ukrainian shells hit the facility, four of which hit the roof of a building storing nuclear fuel, he said.
It was not immediately possible to verify both accounts.
The UN Atomic Energy Agency has tried to work out an agreement to send a team to inspect and secure the facility. Officials said preparations for the visit were underway but it was unclear when it might take place.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was important for International Atomic Energy Agency officials to get to the plant as soon as possible and help keep it “under constant Ukrainian control.”
“The situation remains precarious and dangerous,” Zelenskyj said in his last night’s speech. “Any repetition of the (Thursday) events, ie any disconnection of the station from the grid or any action by Russia that could trigger the shutdown of the reactors, will again bring the station one step away from disaster.”
Ukraine has claimed that Russia is using the power plant as a shield, storing weapons there and launching attacks from there. For its part, Moscow accuses Ukraine of firing on the nuclear complex.
The dispute over the plant prompted Russia late Friday to block agreement on the final document of the four-week review of the UN treaty, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament. The draft document of the NPT Review Conference criticized the Russian takeover of the Zaporizhia power plant.
The deputy head of the Russian delegation said the conference had “become a political hostage” to countries trying “to settle scores with Russia by raising issues not directly related to the treaty.”
Elsewhere in Ukraine, one person was killed and another wounded in Russian gunfire in the Mykolaiv region, local government officials said. The city of Mykolaiv is a major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center.
The governor of eastern Donetsk region Pavlo Kyrylenko said Saturday that two people were killed in Russian gunfire in the town of Bakhmut, a key target for Russian and separatist forces trying to seize control of parts of the region that are being held don’t already hold them.
The British government announced on Saturday that it is providing Ukraine with underwater drones and training seafarers to clear mines off the devastated country’s coast. Mines laid in the Black Sea during the war have hampered the export of Ukrainian grain by sea to world markets, although an agreement reached in July has allowed supplies to resume along a single corridor.
More than 1 million tons of Ukrainian food have been shipped under the Black Sea Grains Agreement since early August, the United Nations said on Saturday. Grain flow under the deal has lowered prices, reduced the risk of food insecurity and allowed the World Food Program to resume wheat purchases from Ukraine for drought-hit countries like Ethiopia and Yemen.
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