Leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany have requested for restraint around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant in Ukraine, as artillery shells continued to attack a city near the plant.
In a press release on Sunday, the White House stated that the four leaders spoke via phone and discussed the situation at Zaporizhzhya, “including the need to avoid military operations near” the facility, which is Europe’s biggest atomic power station.
US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke about the significance of a visit to the nuclear site by independent inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as soon as possible, it added.
A flare-up in fighting around the nuclear power station, with both sides pointing fingers at each other for attacks, has raised the specter of a disaster worse than in Chernobyl. The world’s worst nuclear disaster took place in 1986, about 110km (68 miles) north of the capital Kyiv, when an explosion at the plant’s fourth reactor sent clouds of radiation billowing across much of Europe.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has formerly stated that the consequences of a radiation accident at Zaporizhzhia “could be even more catastrophic than Chernobyl, and essentially the same as the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, but without a nuclear strike”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week disclosed that he was “gravely concerned” at the situation around the plant, renewing his call for demilitarization of the plant. Russia meanwhile has blamed Ukraine of preparing a “provocation” at the site that would see Moscow “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant”.
Amid the fighting and the tensions, the French presidency on Friday stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted that IAEA inspectors can travel to the nuclear plant for an inspection.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, disclosed that the four leaders were likely to have discussed Macron’s conversation with Putin, as well as contingency plans for a possible disaster at Zaporizhzhya.
“If the worst case happens, if there is a malfunction at the plant, if there is a radioactive cloud, and if it drifts into a NATO member country, what are they going to do? They likely talked about this. Remember, Article 5 of the NATO charter says a direct attack on any NATO country means that NATO then instantly gets involved in the war. Well, would a radioactive cloud be considered a direct attack on that country?” said Culhane.
The leaders released a readout of their conversation as a message to the Kremlin and to Putin that “this issue is one that these leaders are taking very seriously,” said Culhane, and was intended to “send a message that they are working on what the response would be”.
The White House said that during their talks on Sunday, Biden, Johnson, Scholz and Macron “affirmed their continued support for Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian nuclear aggression”.
The four leaders’ call came as Ukrainian officials alleged the shelling of Nikopol, a city near Zaporizhzhya, overnight.
Nikopol was attacked on five different occasions overnight, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko wrote on Telegram. He said 25 artillery shells hit the city, resulting in a fire at an industrial site and cutting power to 3,000 residents.
Local authorities also alleged overnight missile attacks in Ukraine’s Odessa region, home to ports critical to a UN-brokered plan to assist Ukrainian agricultural exports reach world markets again.
Five Russian Kalibr cruise missiles were shot from the Black Sea at the region overnight, a regional administration spokesperson revealed, citing information from the southern military command. Two were fired down by Ukrainian air defenses, and three hit agricultural targets, but there were no casualties.
Russia disclosed on Sunday that the missiles had destroyed an ammunition depot containing missiles for US-made HIMARS rockets. Kyiv said a granary had been hit.