US warns Russia against causing second Chernobyl at Ukraine nuke plant

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration urged Russia Friday to surrender Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and avoid a potential reprise of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — amid speculation that Moscow is considering shelling the facility in a “false flag” operation.

Russian forces have held the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant since March. Recently, the plant has served as a base for several Russian artillery units that have kept up constant fire on the nearby Ukrainian front lines.

“We are very concerned about military operations at or near any of Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities,” a senior US defense official said Friday. “We’ve been very clear that fighting near a nuclear power plant is dangerous is irresponsible, and we want the fighters and Russia to operate with extreme caution and conduct no actions that would result in a potential radiological release.”

The sarcophagus covering the Chernobyl nuclear power station’s damaged Reactor No. 4 crumbles nearly 20 years after it’s explosion.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Tensions grew earlier Friday as Russia’s state nuclear agency announced an unplanned day off at the plant, sparked fears of a bombardment that would be blamed on Ukrainian fighters.

Russia and Ukraine have previously traded blame for earlier shelling at the facility. On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin again claimed in a phone call with French President Emanuel Macron that Ukraine was shelling the plant – which Putin warned could cause a “large-scale catastrophe that could lead to radioactive contamination of large territories.”

A senior US military official dismissed Putin’s claim last week, saying that the experience of Chernobyl meant Kyiv was all too aware of the consequences of such an attack.

“I don’t have any belief that the Ukrainians — who know very well what the impact of hitting that power plant would be — would have an interest in hitting the power plant,” the official said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency last week urged Russia to allow its specialists to inspect the plant for safety following recent shelling and nearby fighting.

“We have been very clear with Russia that we expect Russia to return full control of this plant, to comply with the request by the International Atomic Energy Agency to comply with its technical safeguards and provide access to the plant,” the defense official said.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters on Monday that Russia would do “everything necessarily” to facilitate the visit “and give a truthful assessment of the Ukrainian side’s destructive actions.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine February 24.
Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

The US official said Friday that Washington is particularly concerned about “any reports of damage to [the plant’s] power lines.”

“All of us have seen how Russia has shown complete disregard for the security of Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities,” the official said. “We see Russia’s current actions in and around this plant as really the height of irresponsibility, especially when you consider the responsibilities that come with being a nuclear power.”

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