Zaporizhzhia: Evacuations from the Russian-occupied region of Ukraine raise concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants

(CNN) The United Nations nuclear watchdog has raised concerns about the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, describing the situation as “increasingly unpredictable”, after Moscow ordered the evacuation of residents from the areas occupied by Russia near the facility.

More than 1,600 people, including 660 children, have been evacuated from Russian-occupied towns on the front lines in Zaporizhzhia, Yevgeniy Balitskiy, the Russian-appointed acting head of the Zaporizhzhia region administration, said on Monday. .

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, is owned by Russian forces but mainly operated by Ukrainian labor.

The town of Enerhodar was among 18 settlements whose residents were evacuated over the weekend. Most of the plant’s staff live in the city, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement.

Grossi said he was deeply concerned about the “increasingly tense, stressful and difficult conditions” for staff and their families and the “very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant.”

“We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for people and the environment,” Grossi warned.

The city’s evacuation comes amid rumors of an anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive, with the southern region likely to be a major target as kyiv seeks to repel an invasion from Moscow.

Site manager Yuri Chernichuk said operating personnel were not being evacuated and “doing everything necessary to ensure the nuclear safety and security of the plant”.

Chernichuk said the plant’s six reactors are all in shutdown mode and its equipment is being maintained, “in accordance with all necessary nuclear safety and security regulations,” according to Grossi.

The plant’s position on the front lines – located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River – means shelling in towns surrounding and near the facility is common, according to local reports.

It has often been disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid due to intense Russian bombardment in the region, repeatedly raising fears across Europe of a nuclear accident.

The plant is also important because Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear energy. If Russia kept it, Ukraine would lose 20% of its national electricity production capacity. Analysts said Russia would like to capture the plant in good condition, hoping to serve its own electricity market.

The IAEA said experts at the site continued to hear shelling regularly, including late Friday.

Claims of Russian soldiers evacuated as civilians

The evacuations, which began Friday in Zaporizhzhia, were a “necessary measure” due to “intensified shelling of settlements” near the frontline, said Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-appointed acting governor of the partially occupied region.

Local Telegram channels reported sightings of evacuation buses and authorities told residents to pack their bags and get their children out of kindergartens.

The evacuated residents were placed in temporary accommodation and included children of primary school age, Balitskiy said. He said the evacuees “have everything they need: food, a place to sleep, constant contact and consultation with specialists.”

Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of using the evacuations as a means of forcibly evicting Ukrainians.

Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command, told local media that the evacuations were “an imitation of care for local residents”.

She said it was a common practice used by Russians before.

β€œThey are trying to evacuate people to places where they have established their own defense lines and where they are setting up their units in order to use local civilians as cover,” Humeniuk said.

His comments came as the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, claimed that Russian soldiers were trying to leave Zaporizhzhia disguised as civilians.

β€œThere are soldiers trying to escape from temporarily occupied territories,” Fedorov said in an interview with Ukrainian media on Sunday.

“Our residents report cases of Russian soldiers dressed in civilian clothes. One of the purposes for which they do this is to flee the temporarily occupied territory.”

However, Fedorov also said that Russian troops are “increasingly moving towards the Zaporizhzhia front line”.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian military officials reported on Sunday that Russian forces were continuing to shell the area, but with no casualties in the past 24 hours.

On the ground

On Sunday, the spokeswoman for Operation Southern Ukraine said Russian forces were trying to wear down Ukraine’s air defense system.

“They are trying to find a way around this. And they are also expanding their tactics because they don’t have a stable stock of means they can operate with,” Humeniuk said, adding that the Russians were also trying “to test and find where the air defense systems are.

Early Monday, five people were injured in Kyiv following Russian drone attacks on neighborhoods in the Ukrainian capital overnight, according to Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv City Military Administration (KCMA)..

In the south, Russia launched eight missiles at the port city of Odessa overnight Sunday, the Ukrainian Air Force said.

Russian missile attacks have also been recorded in Kharkiv, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, according to the Ukrainian military.

And in eastern Ukraine, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group claimed his troops had advanced into the besieged town of Bakhmut.

Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said on Sunday that his forces had advanced in “different directions so far”, although the Ukrainians still controlled 2.37 square kilometers.

Prigozhin has now suggested his forces will remain in Bakhmut after the Russian Defense Ministry promised to provide them with more ammunition, apparently backtracking on a withdrawal threat.

Bakhmut was the scene of a months-long assault by Russian forces that drove thousands of people from their homes and left the area devastated.

But, despite the vast amounts of manpower and resources that Russia invested in capturing Bakhmut, Moscow’s forces suffered many casualties and were unable to take full control of the city.

CNN’s Maria Kostenko, Josh Pennington, Olga Voitovych and Tim Lister contributed reporting.

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