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Violence has damaged infrastructure near a Ukraine power plant, sparking safety fears

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A crisis is brewing in southern Ukraine, where Russian and Ukrainian forces are battling near Europe's largest nuclear power complex. In recent days, the violence has damaged infrastructure near the power plant, raising questions about safety and whether the International Atomic Energy Agency should get involved. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Kyiv to talk about the latest. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so catch us up here. This nuclear complex that I understand has been under Russian control for months now - right? - like, why the sudden and urgent concern at this point particularly?

MAK: So these concerns have become more acute over the last few days near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex in the south of Ukraine. Shelling near the plant has damaged power lines, radiation sensors and an auxiliary building. That's according to Energoatom, the Ukrainian organization tasked with running nuclear power stations. And there are ongoing concerns as well - that, for example, mechanics familiar with the plant can't get in and spare parts also can't get in.

CHANG: OK. And both Ukrainian and Russian officials have warned about what could happen if the plan is compromised, right? Can you just tell us what are the specific risks here?

MAK: Right. So both Ukrainian and Russian forces have been accusing each other of shelling the area around the plant, and they've condemned each other for the broader dangers these attacks could produce. But it's also important to emphasize right now that while the situation is dangerous, there are no signs that a nuclear disaster is imminent.

CHANG: OK.

MAK: That being said, it's the first nuclear power plant in an active war zone. So it's uncharted territory. My colleague Julian Hayda spoke to Henry Sokolski. He's the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Look. The power lines have to supply electricity to the pumps that cool the fuel rods. The control room has to be functional. And then there's the storage of the spent fuel, which has to be cool. And if it isn't, then you can get a spent fuel fire, which can produce even more of a radiological release by far than even a meltdown.

MAK: So Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed this in a speech last evening. He said that if an accident happens, quote, "no one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination." Russia-aligned officials said that what he addressed as Ukrainian artillery strikes, quote, "put the whole of Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe."

CHANG: Well, what has the international response been so far? I mean, can anything be done to ratchet down the tensions here?

MAK: So incidentally, U.N. Security General Antonio Guterres was speaking in Hiroshima to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing there. And he told reporters, quote, "any attack on a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing." Now, Ukrainian officials have proposed that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex be temporarily transferred to a third party that's modeled on this internationally mediated grain deal or that the area around the plant be made into a military-free zone. The IAEA has said that it's ready to lead a mission to monitor the plant's safety and provide impartial and independent information about the facility. But because the plant is in Russian-held territory, there are enormous technical and legal challenges in getting access to the site. Russia said they're prepared to help arrange an IAEA observer mission to the site. That's according to RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news agency. But no such mission has been confirmed as of yet.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tim Mak reporting from Kyiv. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.