Fears are growing for the largest nuclear plant in Europe with experts warning that the site in Ukraine becoming “increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous”.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has voiced his concern as Russian occupation forces evacuate civilians from the Ukrainian town of Enerhodar close to the Zaporizhzhia plant.
The evacuation comes ahead of an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive, although nuclear staff are staying on-site.
The IAEA statement said that “while operating staff remain at the site, Director General Rafael Grossi expressed deep concern about the increasingly tense, stressful, and challenging conditions for personnel and their families”.
It said the IAEA experts present at the plant had “received information” that the announced evacuation of residents from the nearby town of Enerhodar, where most plant staff live, had started.
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The scale of the reported evacuation has not been confirm but Mr Grossi insisted: “We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident.”
The BBC reports that the IAEA has previously issued warnings after shelling caused damage to installations and temporary power outages without triggering any leak of radiation.
In March, the IAEA said the plant was running on diesel generators to keep vital cooling systems going following damage to power lines.
It said that all six reactors at the plant were in shutdown mode.
Site director Yuri Chernichuk was reported by the IAEA as saying operating staff are not being evacuated and are doing everything necessary to ensure nuclear safety.
Russian forces occupy much of the surrounding region but not the regional capital Zaporizhzhia, which is just north-east of Enerhodar across the Dnipro Reservoir.
The IAEA said that since Russia launched its invasion in February 2022 the number of staff at the plant has declined,”but site management has stated that it has remained sufficient for the safe operation of the plant”.
Besides Enerhodar, Russia has ordered an evacuation of civilians from 18 frontline locations in the region.
Russian-installed regional head Yevgeny Balitsky said on Friday that Ukraine had “stepped up the shelling of settlements close to the front line.”
“I have therefore made a decision to evacuate first of all children and parents, elderly people, disabled people and hospital patients,” he announced on social media.