Russian forces disconnected Ukraine’s closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant from the nation’s power grid, Ukraine’s state-owned grid operator Ukrenergo said Wednesday. The move potentially jeopardizes the cooling of nuclear fuel still stored at the site.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said that U.N. monitors had “unexpectedly lost connection” with monitoring systems there, calling it an “extremely dangerous situation.”
Electricity is needed for cooling, ventilation and fire extinguishing systems at the site. In a statement on its Facebook page, Ukrenergo said emergency diesel generators have been turned on but that fuel would last only 48 hours. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday demanded a cease-fire to allow repairs.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday on Twitter that the power loss “violates [a] key safety pillar” but that it did not see any “critical impact” on safety.
Concerns emerged that the Russian invasion could jeopardize the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear sites after Russian forces took control of Chernobyl on Feb. 24.
Those fears mounted when a Russian projectile sparked a fire early March 4 at the Zaporizhzhia site, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, triggering alarm across the world. Authorities have not recorded a release of radioactive material or damage to reactors.
The Zaporizhzhia incident prompted the United States to activate its nuclear-incident response team. At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, the United States and allies lambasted Russia for the shelling and seizure of the plant.
“The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Moscow denied that Russian forces fired on the plant.
Russian troops have placed Ukrainian workers at both the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia plants under their command.
In a statement released Sunday, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that according to Ukraine, Russian troops had cut off access to the Internet and mobile networks around the Zaporizhzhia site, hindering the flow of reliable information from the ground.
Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear energy — its 15 functional reactors, situated in four power stations, provide about half of the country’s electricity. It was also the site of a 1986 nuclear meltdown that sent a radioactive cloud over Europe. The specter of the Chernobyl disaster has loomed large amid fighting near nuclear reactors in recent days.
During a news briefing last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the country was “taking every measure” to maintain the safety of the Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl plants.
Here’s what to know about Ukraine’s nuclear sites and what risks the invasion by Russia could pose.