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A Russian service member stands guard at a checkpoint near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant before the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency expert mission on June 15, 2023.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

The security situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is increasingly getting worse, Ukrainian officials say, as they reiterate calls for the international community to put pressure on Russian troops to leave the station.

Ukraine and Russia frequently blame each other for shelling around the plant, and there have been a number of such accusations this week.

Most recently, on Tuesday Russia accused Ukraine of attacking the plant with drones, but Ukrainian authorities denied involvement and said any attacks were staged by Moscow.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors held an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the attacks, at both Ukraine and Russia’s request.

At the meeting, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the most recent attacks “have shifted us into an acutely consequential juncture in this war.” He added that he wanted “to ensure these reckless attacks do not mark the beginning of a new and gravely dangerous front.”

Fears about the safety of the power plant began when Russian soldiers first occupied it in March, 2022, shortly after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The Zaporizhzhia plant is the largest in Europe, and before the war employed 11,000 people.

As a safety measure, the plant was shut down in September, 2022, but it still requires maintenance. Ukrainian officials say the plant’s equipment is deteriorating, and there have been problems with damaged power lines, and a lack of knowledgeable staff on site. The damaged lines are particularly worrisome, because the plant needs external power to keep the nuclear material cool to prevent a nuclear accident.

Last month, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution condemning Russia’s occupation of the plant and declared “grave concern” over the lack of maintenance and unqualified staff on site.

Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told The Globe and Mail in an interview that while the IAEA resolution calls for Russians to immediately withdraw their troops from the plant, Russian authorities have ignored them.

“So, if they don’t care, you have only one way, that is to punish and punish,” he said, adding that there has to be tough sanctions against Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company, which has taken control of the plant.

Mr. Halushchenko held out his phone to show recent images from inside the facility. “Just to understand what is happening there, that is Zaporizhzhia Power Plant,” he said, showing a video of men running laps inside a space that’s now also storing military equipment. “So, that’s craziness, they are using it as a gym.”

Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s nuclear agency Energoatom, said the situation in the plant is worsening.

“If we are talking about nuclear radiation safety, there is a big danger at the moment to actually fulfill all the requirements,” he said. “If we are talking about personnel, it’s not enough.”

Mr. Kotin said although Ukrainian employees have been banned from working at the plant, around 2,700 signed contracts with Rosatom. Those individuals, who are mostly lower- and middle-level personnel, do not have the experience required to maintain safety at the plant.

He said there have been eight full blackouts at the power plant as a result of damaged power lines, during which the plant relied on diesel generators. If anything were to happen to the generators, he said, the consequences would be similar to that of Fukushima, Japan, where a meltdown released radioactive contaminants in 2011.

Another concern, says Mr. Kotin, is the mines placed by Russian troops outside the plant’s perimeter. Occasionally wild animals will step on one, causing it to explode, which has contributed to damage of the power lines.

With reports from Kateryna Hatsenko in Ukraine and Reuters.

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