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Risk of ‘nuclear incident’ in Ukraine as Russia evacuates civilians from towns near Zaporizhzhia power plant

The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has said he is “extremely concerned” about the situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine amid reports of evacuations from near the site.

Russian officials have said that they began to evacuate the nearby city of Enerhodar, where most of the plant’s workers live, on Friday, as officials warned of an increasingly dangerous situation unfolding in the area.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said: “The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

“I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant. We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment.”

While operating staff remain at the site, Mr Grossi said the situation was becoming “increasingly tense” and stressful for workers and their families.

Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, has been under Russian control since March 2022 but the area has seen battles with Ukraine’s forces – sparking fears of a possible nuclear incident as regular shelling close to the facility continues.

On Friday, Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-installed governor of the partially-occupied Zaporizhzhia province, said that he had ordered the evacuation of civilians from 18 settlements in the area, including Enerhodar, which is located next to the power plant.

The settlements affected are 30 to 40 miles from the front line of fighting between Ukraine and Russia, and Mr Balitsky said Ukraine has intensified attacks on the area in the past several days.

The region is also widely seen as a likely focus for Ukraine’s anticipated spring counter-offensive.

The Ukrainian general staff said on Sunday that the evacuation of Enerhodar has already begun, with those who took Russian citizenship following the capture of the town among the first to be moved.

They are being taken to the Russia-occupied Azov Sea coast, about 120 miles (200km) to the south-east.

Mr Grossi said operating staff at the nuclear power plant, whose six reactors are currently all in shutdown mode, had not been evacuated as of Saturday but that most live in Enerhodar and the situation has contributed to “increasingly tense, stressful and challenging conditions for personnel and their families”.

“We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequence for the population and the environment,” Mr Grossi said.

“This major nuclear facility must be protected. I will continue to press for a commitment by all sides to achieve this vital objective.”

Elsewhere, Russian shelling on Saturday and overnight killed six civilians and injured four others in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, according to a Telegram update published by the local administration on Sunday.

Five civilians were injured in the eastern Donetsk region, the epicentre of the fighting in recent months, local governor Pavlo Kyrylenko reported on Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces overnight attacked the largest port in the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula with drones, a Kremlin-installed local official said on Telegram early on Sunday.

According to the post by Mikhail Razvozhayev, the governor of Sevastopol, 10 Ukrainian drones targeted the city, three of which were shot down by air defence systems. Mr Razvozhayev said there had been no damage.

Additional reporting by agencies

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