Russia has ominously warned the workers at a critical nuclear power plant in Ukraine to stay home on Friday, raising fears of an impending nuclear crisis as a result of ongoing hostilities.
Forces loyal to the Kremlin seized control of the Zaporizhzhia power plant – Europe’s largest – in southeastern Ukraine shortly after Russia launched its invasion in late February. It has been the site of continued shelling since then, which both the Kremlin and the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blame on the other, prompting persistent fears by international monitoring agencies of a broader fallout.
But the potential for nuclear disaster reached a new peak this week amid reports that the employees of Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency that reportedly staffs the facility now, received notice not to come to work on Friday and that the entrances would be shuttered. Ukrainian officials have also told several news outlets that they have information Russia appears to be preparing a false-flag attack or some other incident that Moscow could claim as a provocation against it.
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The warnings reached crisis levels on Thursday, coinciding with a planned meeting in the far-western Ukrainian city of Lviv between Zelenskyy, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the occasional ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has taken on a singular diplomatic role in conflict zones where both Russian and Western forces operate.
“We do not want to experience a new Chernobyl,” the Turkish leader said at a press conference after the meeting, referring to the 1986 Soviet nuclear accident in what is now Ukraine – one of the worst in the nuclear age.
The trio met to discuss potential diplomatic solutions to the burgeoning crisis. And Zelenskyy confirmed afterward that Ukraine and the U.N. had agreed for a mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the plant.
The IAEA had previously stated the fighting around Zaporizhzhia did not appear to affect nuclear safety and security at the plant. In a statement on Friday, however, Director-General Mariano Grossi called the renewed shelling “deeply troubling.”
And Thursday’s announcement of a new monitoring mission did not specifically address the latest fears. Indeed, Zelenskyy said that for the mission to have any success Russia must first stop shelling the plant.
Russia, however, has consistently stated that Ukrainian forces, in fact, are the perpetrators of the shelling. Its mission to the U.K. released photos on Thursday it says shows the remnants of Western-supplied missile components found in craters at the Zaporizhzhia plant.
The Kremlin has previously blamed Ukraine for artillery attacks similar to strikes on the plant that later turned out to be false.
And a top Russian legislator for foreign affairs on Thursday refuted that the agreement would clearly resolve the mounting crisis at the facility.
“The situation around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is only heating up,” Leonid Slutsky, head of the international committee within Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, said on his Telegram channel moments after the announcement of the agreement. “And the negotiations in Lvov have not yet given clear guarantees of an end to nuclear blackmail by the Ukrainian side.”
He called Ukraine’s assertions about Russian shelling “false accusations,” according to a translation of his remarks.
Russia on Thursday threatened to shut down the plant due to a potential orchestrated disaster as a result of Ukraine’s shelling.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, however, told NBC News of the Russian order for its workers not to report for duty, describing the potential for “large-scale provocations” at the facility, known as the ZNPP.
“We do not rule out the possibility of massive Russian provocations on the territory of the ZNPP tomorrow,” Andriy Yusov told the outlet. “This is confirmed by their propaganda, information from our sources and the behavior of the Russians at the station.”