The situation in the area near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is “becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” the head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said Saturday.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement that he was “extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risk” facing the Zaporizhzhia power plant in southeast Ukraine.
“We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment,” he said.
He also said the Russian occupied facility, which is almost twice the size of Chernobyl, “must be protected.”
“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,” he said.
The statement said that the IAEA had received information that residents from the nearby town of Enerhodar, where most of the plant staff live, had started and the organization was “closely monitoring the situation for any potential impact on nuclear safety and security.”
“The IAEA experts at the site are continuing to hear shelling on a regular basis,” the statement read.
Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of Enerhodar, said in a Telegram post on Saturday that Russian forces were fueling an atmosphere of “panic” with recent announcements of evacuations.
“The first wave of evacuations began yesterday morning, but it cannot be called ‘mass’ now. Some of the people who wanted to leave were loaded onto buses. Some left in their own vehicles. Accordingly, gas stations ran out of fuel yesterday. ATMs do not work, or work with great restrictions, and there is nowhere to withdraw money,” he said.
The general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement on Facebook that residents were being evacuated to Berdiansk and Prymorsk, two nearby towns on the Azov coast that are also under Russian military occupation.
The statement also said that “evacuations are subject to people who have Russian passports. The first to be evacuated are those who accepted Russian citizenship in the first months of the occupation.”
NBC News has not been able to independently verify either claim.
Captured by Russia in the early days of the war, the Zaporizhzhia complex is still operated by Ukrainian technicians. The plant’s six reactors generate more power than any such facility in the United States.
There was growing international alarm after shelling hit the site in August. Both sides have blamed the other for attacks in the vicinity of the plant.
Grossi last visited the Zaporizhzhia station in March as part of an effort to secure an agreement from both sides on safeguards to ensure the plant’s protection.
The number of staff at the plant has declined in recent months, the IAEA statement said, although it quoted the site's director, Yuri Chernichuck, as saying that operating staff would not be evacuated and are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety of the site.
The United States has previously accused Russia of failing to acknowledge the “grave radiological risk” at the plant.
The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the northern Ukrainian city of Pripyat is considered the worst on record.
It required the evacuation of more than 100,000 people living within nearly 19 miles, and the resulting radiation was detected across Europe. Officially, fewer than 50 people died as a direct result of Chernobyl, a figure that scientists and environmental groups vigorously contest.
Ukrainian lawmakers have previously speculated that as many as 3 million people could die and that 51 million more could be otherwise affected by radiation in a serious incident involving the Zaporizhzhia plant.