Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government on Wednesday to take control of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, as the UN nuclear watchdog warned that power supply to the site was “extremely fragile.”
However, the boss of Ukraine’s state energy agency announced he was taking over the plant, which has become a focus of international concern due to the possibility of a nuclear disaster after shelling in the area for which Moscow and Kyiv have blamed each other.
Russia captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) in March shortly after invading Ukraine, but Ukrainian staff have continued to operate it.
The plant is located in the southern Ukrainian region also called Zaporizhzhia, one of four regions that Mr. Putin formally incorporated into Russia on Wednesday in a move condemned by Kyiv as an illegal land grab.
“The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is now on the territory of the Russian Federation and, accordingly, should be operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies,” RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.
Mr. Putin later signed a decree that designated the ZNPP “federal property.”
Russia’s nuclear power operator Rosenergoatom said it would conduct an assessment of how to repair damage to the plant’s infrastructure and would transfer all the existing Ukrainian employees to a new Russian-owned organization.
“The new operating organization is designed to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plant and the professional activities of the existing plant personnel,” it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company said he was taking charge of the ZNPP and he urged workers there not to sign any documents with its Russian occupiers.
“All further decisions regarding the operation of the station will be made directly at the central office of Energoatom,” Petro Kotin said in a video address posted on the Telegram messaging app.
“We will continue to work under Ukrainian law, within the Ukrainian energy system, within Energoatom,” Mr. Kotin said.
His comments followed the brief detention by Russian forces last weekend of the ZNPP’s Ukrainian director Ihor Murashev. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later said that Mr. Murashev had been released but would not return to his old job.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi is currently in Ukraine for further consultations on “agreeing and implementing a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the ZNPP as soon as possible,” the UN agency said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Grossi reiterated his concerns about the power supply to the plant.
“The situation with regards to external power continues to be extremely precarious. We do have at the moment external power but it is, I would say fragile. There is one line feeding the plant,” he told the Energy Intelligence Forum in London via telephone link.
Mr. Grossi is also due to visit Moscow this week, and Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency said he might also visit the ZNPP after travelling there last month with a team to inspect damage caused by shelling in the vicinity.
Before Russia’s invasion, the plant produced about one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity and nearly half the energy generated by the country’s nuclear power facilities.
Russia acted to annex Zaporizhzhia and three other regions after holding what it called referendums – votes denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as illegal and coercive. Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions.
On Wednesday, dozens of firefighters rushed to douse blazes in a town near Ukraine’s capital Kyiv following multiple strikes caused by what local officials said were Iranian-made loitering munitions, often known as “kamikaze drones.”
Six drones hit a building overnight in Bila Tserkva, around 75 kilometres south of the capital, said the governor of the Kyiv region, Oleksiy Kuleba.
Ukraine has reported a spate of Russian attacks with Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in the last three weeks, but the strike on Bila Tserkva was by far the closest to Kyiv.
Iran denies supplying the drones to Russia, while the Kremlin has not commented.
“There was a roaring noise, a piercing sound. I heard the first strike, the second I saw and heard. There was a roar and then ‘boom’ followed by an explosion,” said 80-year-old Volodymyr, who lives across the street from the stricken building.
Other residents told Reuters they heard four explosions in quick succession, followed by another two over an hour later.
Ukrainian forces appear to have been caught on the back foot by the drones, which Kyiv says Moscow started using on the battlefield in September.
Speaking on television on Wednesday, Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat said the drones were launched from occupied areas in southern Ukraine, and that six further drones had been shot down before reaching their target.
“This is a new threat for all the defence forces [of Ukraine], and we need to use all available means to try to counter it,” Mr. Ihnat said, comparing the drone’s small size to an artillery shell.
The attacks left locals in Bila Tserkva shaken and seeking cover when subsequent air raid sirens sounded.
“It is beyond me what those Russians think. I do not know when we will manage to chase them from our territory. It is just tears and heartache for my Ukraine. That’s all I can say,” said 74-year-old Lyudmyla Rachevska.