Russian forces have brought large amounts of provisions and water supplies to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which they captured in southeastern Ukraine after invading last year, Kyiv’s state atomic agency said on Friday.
Energoatom said the move might indicate Russia is preparing to barricade employees inside because of an acute shortage of qualified staff at Europe’s largest nuclear plant and Ukraine’s much-expected counter-offensive.
There was no immediate comment from Russia.
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“Given the intense shortage of nuclear specialists needed to operate the temporarily occupied Zaporizhzhia NPP, and fearing a Ukrainian offensive, the (Russians) are preparing for the long-term holding of ZNPP employees as hostages,” Energoatom said.
“The invaders have already brought a lot of provisions and water to the station,” it added in a statement.
“The occupiers will probably not allow the station staff to leave after one of the regular work shifts, forcibly blocking them at the ZNPP.”
Energoatom has repeatedly accused Russian forces of abusing and intimidating their employees at the plant, a charge Moscow denies.
The UN’s nuclear chief and several national leaders have repeatedly warned that attacks on the plant - for which both sides have blamed one another - could trigger a Chornobyl-like disaster.
Last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to transfer the plant, its assets and its staff to a new Russian entity, a move decried by Kyiv as expropriation.
An Energoatom spokesperson said the plant used to be operated by 11,000 Ukrainian technicians but that the number had dwindled to 6,500, including 2,500 who were pressured into signing contracts with a new Russian entity.
International efforts to secure a demilitarized zone around the plant have so far been unsuccessful.
The Ukrainian military is widely expected to mount a counter-offensive in coming weeks aimed at retaking parts of Russian-occupied territory that were captured in the south and east of the country.
The vast six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is a vital part of Ukraine’s power grid and supplied around a fifth of the country's electricity before the war.