In the battered towns near Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, “everybody is afraid.”

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Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned Russia not to use Europe’s largest nuclear plant as a shield for its forces amid growing concern that fighting could lead to a potentially catastrophic radiation leak. Dozens of other countries say the presence of Russian troops around the sprawling Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station poses “a great danger.”

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata visited two towns just a few miles from the facility, and he found residents deeply worried about the potential for a disaster.

Ukrainian military officials have accused Russia’s invading troops of using the plant as a shield and a base to launch attacks from, knowing that any counterstrike would carry the inherent risk of damaging the nuclear plant’s heavily fortified reactors or other sensitive equipment.

D’Agata and his team saw for themselves the damage inflicted on towns around Zaporizhzhia, where Russian forces have been pummeling residential neighborhoods with nightly bombardments, killing civilians in what local officials call a campaign of terror.

But while the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas is a tragic reality for all of Ukraine’s front-line towns, Ukraine and its allies say it’s a far graver situation as these attacks are being launched from the site of the nuclear power station.  

The riverfront towns of Marhenets and Nikopol are bearing the brunt of the Russian assaults. At the shortest point, it’s only about three miles across the Dnipro River from the towns to the sprawling nuclear complex.

Occupied by Russian forces since March, it has become a battleground. Russia has accused Ukraine for firing rockets at the plant, and Ukraine says Russia is using it as a launchpad.

Ludymila Siskina, 74, whose house was badly damaged and whose husband was killed in Russian missile strikes, is seen after the strikes in Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine, August 11, 2022. Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Nikopol Deputy Mayor Natalia Horbolit and her town are among those caught in the middle.

“People are afraid,” she told D’Agata. “Everybody is afraid.”  

CBS News visited one apartment complex just a few days after a Russian missile slammed into it during the nightly bombardment. Residents said there was barely seven seconds between the rockets being fired from the nuclear power plant, to them slamming into their homes. 

“I barely had time to jump into the bathroom,” a visually-impaired survivor told D’Agata and his team. “I thought that the house would crumble down on top of me.”  

Another woman, in shock and left homeless, pointed to the ruins of her balcony.

“What are you going to do now?” D’Agata asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.”

The attacks usually happen at night, but our CBS News team heard several explosions while they were in the towns on the banks of the Dnipro.

With Russia showing scant interest in international calls to hand over control of the plant or even to remove its forces from the facility, Zelenskyy has issued a warning that any Russian soldier who targets it or uses it as cover will in turn be targeted by Ukraine’s special forces.

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