Aug. 26 (UPI) — There was more shelling on Friday near the nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine that was knocked off the country’s power grid, and U.N. inspectors say they’re working on a trip to visit the vulnerable facility.
The Zaporizhzhia plant was disconnected from the country’s electrical grid twice on Thursday when fire damage cut a main transmission line that powers the nuclear reactors. The transmission line was the last functioning line, as the other three have already been cut by the fighting.
It’s not believed that the damage to the line was intentional, but Russian forces have been launching attacks from areas near the plant for weeks, leading experts to think they’re using it as a shield — knowing that the Ukrainian military will not want to return fire anywhere close to the facility.
Officials said the plant was partly reconnected to the main power grid on Friday — meaning that one of the two functioning reactors is back online. Even the partial reconnection, though, substantially lowers the danger level at the facility.
When disconnected from the grid, the plant must rely on highly vulnerable diesel generators for power. If those were to fail, nuclear engineers would only have about 90 minutes to prevent disastrous overheating of the nuclear towers, experts have said.
Ukraine state nuclear agency Energoatom said all six reactors at the plant were still disconnected from the grid by early Friday. The plant has been under Russian control since March.
Thursday marked the first time in the plant’s history that it’s been disconnected from the main grid. It is the largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, and is also the largest in all of Europe.
“The world must understand what a threat this is: If the diesel generators hadn’t turned on … we would now be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said according to NBC News.
“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster.”
Ukrainian officials said that an area near the Zaporizhzhia plant came under heavy Russian mortar fire early on Friday, which is only heightening grave concerns about a possible nuclear disaster in a country that’s still haunted by the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.
That accident killed hundreds of people and contaminated the area with heavy radiation that will last for decades to come.
International energy experts and the United Nations warned for weeks about a potential disaster if sustained shelling continued around the large nuclear facility. A disaster there could be on the scale of Chernobyl and affect much of Europe.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is planning to send a mission to the Zaporizhzhia plant next week, when inspectors could check on key systems and get a better picture of the plant’s health. Ukrainian officials said details of the trip are being worked out.
“We are very, very close to that,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told France24. “We need to stabilize the situation.”
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, at least publicly, agreed to allow a team of IAEA inspectors to survey the plant.
In other fighting Friday, Mykolaiv Oblast Gov. Vitaliy Kim said Russian troops targeted two villages in the region’s Shyroke community — and Russian forces shelled Dnipropetrovsk Oblast using Grad and Uragan multiple rocket launchers, a regional governor said. The shelling targeted the Nikopol, Synelnykove and Kryvy Rih districts.