Russian forces have seized Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to a local authority, after intense fighting during which shelling caused a fire to break out a training facility on the site.
Ukraine’s nuclear inspectorate said on Thursday that “armed forces of the Russian Federation have occupied the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant” shortly after the fire was extinguished.
The blaze at a training building in the complex – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – had prompted global concern, with the United States and the United Kingdom calling for an end to fighting in the area.
Ukraine’s emergency services said the hours-long fire was extinguished at 6:20am local time [04:20 GMT] on Thursday and that there were no victims.
Local authorities also said the blaze did not affect “essential” equipment at the plant, which provides more than a fifth of total electricity generated in Ukraine, and did not cause an immediate rise in radiation levels.
Ukraine’s President Volodomy Zelenskyy angrily denounced the attack, in a video message saying: “No country other than Russia has ever fired on nuclear power units.”
“This is the first time in our history. In the history of mankind. The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror,” he added, calling for global help.
“If there is an explosion, it is the end of everything. The end of Europe. This is the evacuation of Europe. Only immediate European action can stop Russian troops.”
Russia’s defence ministry blamed the attack on Ukrainian saboteurs, calling it a “monstrous provocation”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “reckless actions” that he said “could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe” and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The US Department of Energy also activated its nuclear incident response team as a precaution.
‘Reactors being shut down’
The fire broke out early on Thursday morning following fierce fighting in the area about 550km (342 miles) southeast of Kyiv, the mayor of the nearby town of Enerdohar said in an online post.
“As a result of continuous enemy shelling of buildings and units of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is on fire,” Mayor Dmytro Orlov said on his Telegram channel.
Images on a live feed from the plant at the time showed blasts lighting up the night sky and sending up plumes of smoke.
Shortly afterwards, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said the Russian army was “firing from all sides” on the plant.
“Fire has already broke out … Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!” he wrote on Twitter.
Despite the fears, after several hours of uncertainty, Ukrainian authorities said the site had been secured.
“The director of the plant said that the nuclear safety is now guaranteed,” Oleksandr Starukh, head of the military administration of the Zaporizhzhia region, said on Facebook.
“According to those responsible for the plant, a training building and a laboratory were affected by the fire,” he added.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had been told by Ukraine’s regulator that “there has been no change reported in radiation levels” at the site.
“Ukraine tells IAEA that fire at site of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has not affected ‘essential’ equipment, plant personnel taking mitigatory actions,” the watchdog added in a tweet.
US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm also tweeted that “the plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures and reactors are being safely shut down”.
US President Joe Biden also spoke with Zelenskyy to get an update on the situation at the plant.
“President Biden joined President Zelenskyy in urging Russia to cease its military activities in the area and allow firefighters and emergency responders to access the site,” the White House said.
Russia has already captured the defunct Chernobyl plant, about 100km north of Kyiv, which spewed radioactive waste over much of Europe when it melted down in 1986.
The Zaporizhzhia plant is a different and safer type, some analysts said.
“The power plant itself, if it was hit, would not generate the radioactivity or in all likelihood that Chernobyl did,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told Al Jazeera. “But if the spent fuel pond, which is where they put the used fuel, was hit – it could easily be a multiple of the effect of Chernobyl.”
The hit on Zaporizhzhia came as the biggest attack on a European state since World War II entered its ninth day.
The conflict has killed and wounded thousands of people, while one million refugees have fled Ukraine and Russia’s economy has been rocked by international sanctions.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that is not designed to occupy territory but to topple the democratically elected government, destroy its neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
It denies targeting civilians.