KYIV, Ukraine — A powerful Russian missile exploded less than 900 feet from the reactors of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant early Monday, according to Ukrainian officials, a reminder that, despite battlefield setbacks, Russia can still threaten disaster at any of Ukraine’s four active nuclear plants.
The strike on Monday landed near the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, some 160 miles west of another nuclear complex that has been a focus of global concern, the Zaporizhzhia plant, where the United Nations sent a team of experts to stabilize the situation this month.
Unlike the Zaporizhzhia plant, which sits in an active battlefield, the South Ukraine site is far from the frontline fighting, and the strike on Monday appeared to illustrate Russia’s long reach, and the catastrophic potential of an attack on such a plant.
Security camera footage showed a huge fireball lighting up the night sky over the site, and the shock wave blew out more than 100 windows at the South Ukraine plant. Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear energy company, said the blast did extensive damage around a hydroelectric power station near the complex, forced the shutdown of one of the plant’s hydraulic units, and caused partial power outages in the area.
The source of the explosion could not be independently confirmed, but the strike fit a long-established pattern of Russia attacking critical Ukrainian infrastructure, even when it poses a serious threat to civilians. Russia has battered the energy systems that Ukrainian civilians rely on with artillery, briefly set up a base in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and has occupied the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, for months, steadily raising fears that an accident would ensue.
The three reactors at the South Ukraine plant were operating normally, officials said, and the extent of the damage and the type of missile were still being investigated. Ukraine’s southern military command said in a statement that preliminary information pointed to an Iskander cruise missile, with a range of hundreds of miles — one of the weapons in Russia’s arsenal that can reach any corner of Ukraine.
Before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent his forces streaming into Ukraine in February, nuclear plants produced more than half of Ukraine’s electricity, the second-highest share among European nations after France. That heavy reliance has raised fears about further energy disruptions during the winter, and about the threats to the nuclear plants around the country.
“There is no other way to characterize this except for nuclear terrorism,” Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, told Ukrainian national television on Monday. He said that although the heavily fortified concrete buildings that house nuclear reactors are built to withstand a plane crash, the blast from the overnight strike would have been powerful enough to have damaged the containment structures, had the missile struck closer.
“A few hundred meters and we would have woken up in a completely different reality,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said in a statement.
The most dangerous attack on a nuclear plant, experts say, may not be a direct strike on a well-protected reactor, but one that damages or destroys the far more vulnerable critical infrastructure, like the cooling system, that keeps the reactor running safely. Failure of the cooling system can lead to a meltdown and an enormous release of radiation.
In the explosion on Monday, less than 70 miles north of the city of Mykolaiv, there was no damage to essential safety equipment and the plant remained fully operational, Energoatom said.
The strike near the South Ukraine plant, Ukraine’s second-largest working nuclear station, follows months of concern over the larger Zaporizhzhia plant to the east. That complex has come under repeated shelling, with Russia and Ukraine trading accusations of responsibility. As conditions deteriorated last month, the United Nations sent a team of inspectors to the plant, calling for a demilitarized zone at the site.
The situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which Russian soldiers occupy but Ukrainian engineers operate, appears to have stabilized in recent days, after the plant resumed receiving electricity from Ukraine’s power grid last week. But its six reactors have all been shut down as a safety measure, after Energoatom determined that it was too risky to keep them running with fighting nearby.
Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had 15 working reactors at four nuclear plants, built primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, under the Soviet Union: the South Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia plants, in the south, and the Khmelnytskyi and Rivne plants, in the west. The Chernobyl plant in the north, the site of the 1986 nuclear accident, is defunct but engineers still safeguard the waste there — even through a weekslong occupation by Russian soldiers this spring.
As the Kremlin’s campaign to seize territory has faltered, stalling in the east and suffering a rout in the north, Russia has frequently shelled essential Ukrainian infrastructure, including power plants, water treatment centers, railways and utilities. After a Ukrainian counteroffensive drove Russian forces out of the northern Kharkiv region just over a week ago, Russia launched missile strikes on a major heat and power plant in the area, briefly plunging it into a blackout.
The Russian government has denied deliberately targeting civilian centers, despite the devastation of Mariupol, in Ukraine’s south, and extensive damage to other cities and towns, and its history of attacking civilians in Syria and Chechnya. The Kremlin made no statement on Monday about the attack on the South Ukraine plant.
The strikes fit a pattern, analysts say, of sieges that sever lines of power, clean water, food supplies and communication. In combination with its shelling of thermal power plants, its seizure of a hydroelectric plant, and dozens of strikes on power lines and electrical substations, “Russia’s willful recklessness at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant appears part of a broader strategy to cut Ukraine off from energy sources,” Suriya Jayanti, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in a report last week.
Ukrainian officials have said they can still produce enough energy to meet the nation’s needs this winter, but damage to infrastructure in towns and cities will make it difficult to transmit electricity to hundreds of thousands of consumers.
Ukrainian officials have urged those living in territory recently reclaimed by Ukrainian forces, and in other parts of the country hit hard by fighting, to evacuate and not to return home until the fighting is over.
And for the estimated 1.2 million people living in parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, access to electricity is unclear. In some places, heating, water and power infrastructure have been destroyed or badly damaged. Blackouts are frequently reported in parts of occupied southern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow’s strikes on energy infrastructure were intended to make Ukrainians suffer as temperatures drop, and to keep the government in Kyiv from exporting energy to other parts of Europe, where sanctions against Russian energy have contributed to soaring gas and electricity bills for consumers and businesses.
“Russia is trying to prevent us from using Ukraine’s capabilities to stabilize the situation in Europe,” Mr. Zelensky said last week. “Our ability to export electricity is something that Russia is very afraid of right now. Because we can foil Russian plans to squeeze every penny out of ordinary European citizens this winter as energy prices are expected to skyrocket.”
Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s intelligence agency, said recently that nuclear power was essential to Ukraine’s energy production, and that Russia would therefore be planning further attacks, raising the risk of nuclear accidents.
“The Russian invaders consistently and systematically shell the whole energy infrastructure of Ukraine, and this definitely may eventually involve other nuclear facilities, other nuclear power plants,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Anastasia Kuznietsova from Kyiv, Ukraine and Alan Yuhas from New York.