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Nuke disaster fears hang over Europe as Ukraine war grinds on

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, Europe's largest nuclear plant, is being fought over, raising the risk of a nuclear disaster. Both sides accuse each other of shelling the plant and United Nations efforts to demilitarize the area have been rebuffed.

(CN) — Fears of a nuclear disaster loom over Europe as fighting and shelling in southern Ukraine on Friday continued to imperil Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

For the past week, the Soviet-era Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in southern Ukraine has taken center stage in the Russia-Ukraine war as opposing forces fight each other from across the Dnieper River.

The plant came under Russian control only nine days into the opening phase of Russia's invasion in February and March. In the past week, it's come under fire again. Both sides trade blame for firing rockets at the plant and it remains unclear who's responsible. Ukraine has accused Russia of using the nuclear plant as an army base.

Meanwhile, gruesome fighting continues in Donetsk, one of two eastern regions of Ukraine that declared their independence in 2014 following the violent overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who came to power thanks to a base of voters among ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the east and south.

Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces have reportedly entered parts of Bakhmut and taken possession of much of Soledar, two small cities engulfed by the front lines. Fighting there has raged for the past two weeks. On Friday, Russia claimed that it recovered the bodies of more than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters who died in battles for Soledar, as reported by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency. Ukraine too is inflicting heavy losses on Russian forces.

On the diplomatic front, there are no signs that negotiations for a ceasefire are taking place and the rift between Russia and the West is only widening. Indeed, the war rhetoric continues to escalate along with new ways to punish the opponent economically, politically and psychologically.

This week, calls for banning Russian citizens from traveling in the European Union were dialed up. On Thursday, Estonia, a country with a sizable Russian minority, approved a measure to limit Russians from entering its borders. Meanwhile, Latvia's parliament declared Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. The White House is considering doing the same.

Western support for Ukraine remained strong this week as large sums for weapons and government aid were announced by the United States and the United Kingdom. Washington said it was sending $1 billion in arms and $4.5 billion for budgetary support, bringing the U.S. contribution to Ukraine's struggle to $8.5 billion since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.

The U.K. announced a new shipment of rocket launchers to Kyiv and Western countries pledged $1.55 billion in arms and training to Ukraine at a donors' conference Thursday. Several countries, including Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Great Britain and Canada, are involved in training Ukrainian troops.

The threat of a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia is the chief fear at the moment.

In the past week, at least two fires broke out at the facility after parts of the sprawling power plant were hit by rocket fire. As of Friday, there were no reports of radiation leaks. The plant supplies electricity to large areas of Ukraine, but its operations have been reduced due to the threat of attack.

More shelling took place Thursday even as the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting to hammer out a plan to avoid a disaster from occurring.

The U.N. wants to see the area around the plant demilitarized and have a team of inspectors sent in. But both sides are putting up roadblocks to U.N. intervention and are using the nuclear threat as part of their propaganda campaigns to malign their opponents.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said there was no immediate threat to nuclear safety but that “the situation can change at any moment.”

Russia's permanent representative to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, accused Ukraine of shelling the plant and the West of ignoring Kyiv's actions.

“We have repeatedly warned our Western colleagues that if they fail to bring the Kiev government to reason, it will resort to most heinous and senseless acts that will reverberate far beyond the borders of Ukraine,” Nebenzya said, as reported by TASS, a Russian state news agency. “Kiev’s criminal acts against nuclear infrastructure push the world to the brink of a nuclear disaster, comparable to Chernobyl.”

At the Security Council meeting, the United States demanded Russia withdraw its troops from the nuclear plant and return it to Ukrainian control. The U.S., however, refrained from accusing either side of firing on the plant. It called for the area around the plant to be demilitarized.

Volodymyr Rogov, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia region's new Russia-installed military-civilian administration, accused Ukraine of using Western high-precision missiles to strike at the plant, according to RIA Novosti.

Rogov warned that it may be necessary to mothball the plant and shut off electricity to large areas of Ukraine unless the shelling ends. Russia claimed that it prevented Ukrainian missiles from striking the plant's nuclear reactors and fuel storage areas.

In a threatening message to the West, Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia's Security Council, said there are nuclear power plants in the EU and “accidents are also possible there.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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