Plumes of smoke yesterday rose over the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, a low-slung grey building on the banks of the river Dnipro.
For the Ukrainian citizens on the other side of the river – and the watching world – the smoke provoked a fresh shiver of fear: was it a shell? Fire? Something worse?
Having occupied the plant since early March, Russian forces have begun shelling Ukrainian towns in the surrounding area from behind its “nuclear shield”.
The plant, which can power four million homes, still has two of its four nuclear reactors working.
If Ukraine is to progress far in its counter-offensive to retake the south, it must either be bypassed, surrounded or recaptured.
Several times in the past 10 days, reports have emerged of the plant being shelled.
Moscow accuses Ukraine; Kyiv counters that Russian munitions are to blame.
Yesterday, Ukrainian authorities said five Russian shells struck next to an area where radiation sources are stored.
No one was hurt and staff contained the fire, said Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear regulator.
The US state department said yesterday that America supported calls by the UN and others to establish a demilitarised zone around the plant.
“We continue to call on Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukrainian nuclear facilities and return full control to Ukraine, and support Ukrainian calls for a demilitarised zone around the nuclear power plant,” a state department spokesman said.
I am worried and scared that nuclear war could happen
Whoever is responsible for the shelling, residents of the small city of Nikopol near the plant say that Russia’s “suicidal” use of the plant as a base is to blame.
Olena Kravchuk (51) lives around four miles away. She will not leave the home that she built with her husband, nor the garden she tends to every day, despite the regular hum of air raid sirens.
“I am worried and scared that nuclear war could happen,” she said as more sirens blasted through the air.
“If something bad happens at the nuclear station, it doesn’t just affect us here, but the whole of Ukraine and Europe. We don’t want to leave but if there is an explosion at the plant then we will have no choice but to evacuate because the authorities will make us.”
For Oleksandr Sayuk, the mayor of Nikopol, it is too early to tell people to leave their homes. “Everyone should make this decision by themselves, we won’t tell people to evacuate,” Mr Sayuk said. “We live day to day here and if we see the next morning, it’s good.”
Since capturing the plant, Russian soldiers have forced Ukrainian technicians to continue to work at the site.
Some have been tortured with electrical shocks, suspected of supplying information to the Ukrainian military.
Others have been kidnapped and ransomed back to their families by soldiers hungry for cash. In his overnight address late on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “There is no such nation in the world that can feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant.”
Nevertheless, Ukraine has carried out attacks around the plant with highly precise munitions. Military intelligence reported that a kamikaze drone took out a Russian Grad-rocket launcher on July 22, just 150 yards from a nuclear reactor.
Western intelligence has briefed that the plant is robust, with the reactors protected by concrete that can withstand a terrorist attack or plane crash.