KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant was briefly disconnected from the nation’s power grid on Thursday for the first time in its history, Ukrainian officials said, leading to large-scale power outages in nearly all the Russia-occupied cities of southern Ukraine.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant — which provides one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity but has been occupied by Russian forces for months — was still able to generate power to meet its own needs and to keep essential systems working safely, according to the Ukrainian energy agency, Energoatom.
The agency blamed the Russians for shelling key infrastructure around the plant that led to its “complete disconnection” from the power grid, “the first in the history of the plant.”
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, said on Thursday afternoon that the episode underscored the extreme danger at the plant, where shelling has damaged power lines and other infrastructure.
An off-site power supply from the electricity grid is essential for ensuring nuclear safety, the director, Rafael Marino Grossi, said in a statement. The plant has diesel generators to provide back-up power if it loses external power, he noted. Mr. Grossi said that on Thursday the plant’s two operating reactor units had been disconnected from the electricity grid and their emergency protection systems were triggered, but all safety systems remained operational.
The State of the War
- Defiant Under Attack: Amid the blare of air raid sirens, Ukrainians celebrated their Independence Day with a show of defiance against Russia’s invasion, despite the uncertain course of a war that has so far lasted half a year.
- Nuclear Plant Standoff: Russian and Ukrainian militaries are continuing to accuse each other of launching missiles and preparing to stage attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
- A Brazen Bombing: A car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist has injected new uncertainty into the war and rattled Russia’s elite.
- Crimea: With the drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes inside the strategically and symbolically important Kremlin-held territory, the reality of war is becoming increasingly apparent to Russians.
“We can’t afford to lose any more time,” he said. “I’m determined to personally lead an I.A.E.A. mission to the plant in the next few days to help stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation there.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky used his nightly address to underscore the perils of the moment. He said that emergency systems had worked during the time that the power plant was severed from the electricity grid, but that, had they failed, the country, and the world, would be contending with a nuclear accident.
“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster,” Mr. Zelensky said.
The high-voltage lines that allow the plant to transmit the power it generates to more than four million homes, or to draw down power it needs from elsewhere, have come under repeated assault in recent weeks. Ukraine and Russia have traded blame over who is responsible for the shelling, which has continued despite international alarm and calls for the creation of a demilitarized zone around the plant. Russia has rejected that proposal.
Mr. Grossi said his agency in the midst of negotiating the terms of the planned visit to the plant. “We are very, very close to that,” Mr. Grossi told the France 24 news network, although he emphasized that the terms of the visit, and security arrangements to allow the inspectors to travel through a zone of active fighting, were yet to be finalized.
In recent days, shelling has hit infrastructure outside the plant, damaging three of the four high-voltage lines connecting the nuclear facility to the national grid.
On Thursday, Energoatom said the fourth line was damaged twice, briefly disconnecting the plant entirely from the power grid. Each time engineers raced to repair the lines. The line was cut for about seven minutes shortly after noon and then again for a brief period at 2:14 p.m.
The precarious working conditions at the plant and recent shelling at the facility have raised global alarm. The British military intelligence agency on Thursday released new satellite photos showing Russian military equipment parked close to the working reactors.
But the most immediate impact of the fighting around the plant is being felt by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians living in Russia-occupied towns and cities across southern Ukraine.
The exiled mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, said the city was “once again on the verge of a humanitarian disaster.”
“Today, as a result of enemy shelling, the city was completely left without electricity and water,” he said.
Several hours later, he said that workers at the nuclear power plant managed to restore power to the city. But outages in other southern cities continued, including in the Russia-controlled port city of Berdyansk, more than 130 miles to the south.
Residents in the city said cellphone service on the Russian-installed mobile network was not working and that there were long lines for fuel and drinking water. Similar conditions were reported in other towns and cities across the occupied south.