Kyiv, Ukraine — Ukraine’s state nuclear operator accused Russian forces on Tuesday of abducting another senior official at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The sprawling plant sits just inside Russian-held territory in eastern Ukraine, and the ongoing military occupation of it and fighting around it have fueled fears for months of a possible nuclear accident or incident.
Energoatom wrote on its channel on the Telegram messaging app on Tuesday that Valeriy Martyniuk, the plant’s deputy director general for human resources, had been kidnapped. It wrote that “they keep holding him at an unknown location and (are) probably using methods of torture and intimidation.”
The plant has been held by Russian forces for months but its Ukrainian staff have continued to operate the facility. Reports of intimidation of the staff and abductions began trickling out over the summer.
Ukrainian authorities said that the plant’s director, Ihor Murashov, was seized and blindfolded by Russian forces on his way home from work, then released in the early days of October after being forced to make false statements on camera. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it “condemns in the strongest terms the illegal detention” of Murashov.
The nuclear plant is located in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared annexed Russian territory late last month, along with the three neighboring regions of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson.
Shelling around the plant has damaged the facility — Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — and spurred calls from Kyiv and its Western allies to demilitarize areas around all nuclear facilities in Ukraine. Russia has indicated no willingness, however, to remove its forces from the Zaporizhzhia plant.
The exiled mayor of the city of Melitopol, which sits in the Russian-occupied portion of the Zaporizhzhia region, told CBS News earlier this month that he expected Putin to lash out with a tactical nuclear strike in retaliation for the loss of territory in the occupied regions. Ukraine, along with the U.S. and other partners, has warned for weeks that Putin could order some kind of attack on or incident at the nuclear plant to use as a pretext for his own nuclear attack.
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The Russian leader has made it clear that his nuclear arsenal remains on the table in the ongoing war with Ukraine.
In the meantime, Russia has spent two days hammering Ukrainian cities with conventional missile and drone strikes, killing at least 19 civilians according to Ukrainian officials. Some of the worst damage has been inflicted upon the city of Zaporizhzhia, which sits about 20 miles southwest of the power plant, in Ukrainian-held territory.
A monitoring team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, visited the Zaporizhzhia plant in early September, and the IAEA has been pushing Kyiv and Moscow to agree to set up a security zone around the plant since then, to avoid any nuclear accidents. Putin met Tuesday with the IAEA’s Director General, Rafael Grossi, who visited Moscow to discuss the recent fighting around the nuclear plant.
Nuclear Power Plant