Russian troops have seized the biggest atomic power plant in Europe after an attack that set it on fire and raised worldwide fears of nuclear catastrophe.
Ukrainian firefighters put out the blaze and no radiation was released, United Nations and Ukrainian officials said.
After the attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the southeastern city of Enerdohar on Friday, the chief of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said a Russian “projectile” hit a training centre, not any of the six reactors.
The attack triggered global alarm and fears it could dwarf the world’s worst nuclear disaster – at Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986. In an emotional nighttime speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he feared an explosion would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe”.
But nuclear officials from Sweden to China said no radiation spikes had been reported, as did Grossi.
Authorities said Russian troops had taken control of the overall site but plant staff continued to run it. Only one reactor was operating, at 60 percent of capacity, Grossi said in the aftermath of the attack.
Two people were injured in the fire, Grossi said. Ukraine’s state nuclear plant operator Energoatom said three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two wounded.
Describing the attack as “unacceptable” and “highly irresponsible,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said strikes on nuclear power facilities run counter to international humanitarian law.
“The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 stands as a lasting example of why it is vital to ensure all nuclear power plants have the highest standards of safety and security,” she said.
Under-Secretary-General @DicarloRosemary calls military operations around nuclear sites “unacceptable”&”highly irresponsible”. “The fighting in Ukraine must stop. And it must stop now.” Her remarks at today’s Security Council emergency meeting on #Ukraine: https://t.co/QIastvQimY pic.twitter.com/VuPiRH4QPr
— UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (@UNDPPA) March 4, 2022
Grossi reported that Russia informed his agency days ago that its forces were moving into the area of Zaporizhzhia, and were met with opposition by Ukrainian civilians.
“There is no normalcy about this situation when there are military forces in charge of the [nuclear] site,” said Grossi, adding the plant’s operations continue normally.
“Firing shells in the area of a nuclear power plant violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe at all times.”
In the United States, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the episode “underscores the recklessness with which the Russians have been perpetrating this unprovoked invasion”.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Ukraine’s UN ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said the fire broke out as a result of Russian shelling of the plant and accused Moscow of committing “an act of nuclear terrorism”.
Without producing evidence, Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed a Ukrainian “sabotage group” had set the fire at Zaporizhzhia.
‘Contaminating its own territory’
The crisis unfolded after Grossi earlier in the week expressed grave concern the fighting could cause accidental damage to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors at four plants around the country.
Atomic safety experts said a war fought amid nuclear reactors represents an unprecedented and highly dangerous situation.
“These plants are now in a situation that few people ever seriously contemplated when they were originally built,” said Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “No nuclear plant has been designed to withstand a potential threat of a full-scale military attack.”
Alex Rosen of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War said the incident was probably the result of military units overestimating the precision of their weapons, given the prevailing winds would have carried any radioactive fallout straight towards Russia.
“Russia cannot have any interest in contaminating its own territory,” he said, adding the danger comes not just from the reactors but from the risk of enemy fire hitting storage facilities that hold spent fuel rods.
Last week, Russia seized control of the Chernobyl power plant. It has been shut down and sealed with a containment dome after the disaster in April 1986.