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Russian forces seize Ukrainian nuclear power plant after shelling sets it on fire

Russian forces in Ukraine seized Europe’s largest nuclear plant on March 3 after their shelling set part of the complex on fire. (Video: The Washington Post)

Russian forces in Ukraine seized Europe’s largest nuclear plant Friday after their shelling set part of the complex on fire, sparking fears across the continent of a nuclear disaster.

Ukraine’s official nuclear inspectorate said technicians in the Zaporizhzhia facility, about 342 miles southeast of Kyiv, were still at work, and local authorities confirmed that the fire was extinguished around 6:20 a.m. local time after blazing for almost five hours.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said the fire had not affected “essential” equipment and that Ukraine’s regulator reported no change in surrounding radiation levels. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted that the Energy Department has also seen no elevated radiation readings.

“The plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures, and reactors are being safely shut down,” Granholm said.

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But the blaze still sparked international alarm and underscored the perils of a war fought around nuclear sites.

Zaporizhzhia, a nuclear power plant, caught fire after Russian shelling, according to Ukrainian officials. The plant is located near the southeastern city of Enerhodar, Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ukrainian officials immediately raised the possibility of another disaster echoing the deadly 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in a video message that an explosion at the six-reactor, 5,700-megawatt Zaporizhzhia plant could spell the “end of Europe.” He accused Moscow of waging “nuclear terror” and of firing at the reactors deliberately.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov pushed back Friday and blamed Ukraine for the fire at the plant, calling it a plot to discredit Russia.

“The goal of the provocation staged by the Kyiv regime at the nuclear facility was to accuse Russia of creating an area of radioactive contamination,” he told journalists.

During a Thursday news briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also said the country was “taking every measure” to maintain the safety of the Zaporizhzhia plant as well as the abandoned Chernobyl plant, which fell under Russian control last week. She also accused Ukraine of “intentionally destroying” infrastructure, Russian state media reported.

The U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had called an emergency meeting Wednesday as fighting closed in on the site near the city of Enerhodar.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Friday at a news conference that a “projectile was coming from the Russian forces” and hit a building on the plant site overnight but did not compromise any of the reactors.

“All the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all, and there has been no release of radioactive material. Importantly, the radiation monitoring systems are fully functional as well,” he said.

However, the situation remains “extremely tense and challenging,” he added.

He also said two security personnel for the plant were injured. The office of Enerhodar’s mayor said Friday in a Telegram post that three Ukrainian service members were killed and two wounded. It said no plant workers were injured and claimed to have “neutralized one enemy tank with the entire crew.” The Washington Post could not independently verify the casualty toll.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on March 3 that an explosion at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could bring the “end of Europe." (Video: AP)

After Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and surrounding area early Friday, Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov said in a video address that the plant was operational and running as usual. Ukraine’s national atomic energy company said the mayor’s address may have been made under duress.

A visibly grimacing Orlov put out an awkward video statement on Telegram calling on Ukrainians not to provoke Russian troops in the area and saying that no shots had been fired at civilians. He also suggested, improbably, that Russian troops had fired blanks.

“There were no shots fired at the civilian population; if they were fired, then these were blanks. There were no shots at residential areas. There were no victims or casualties among the unarmed population,” Orlov said, appearing to read from a piece of paper while being hesitant to look at the camera. “We call the population not to provoke the troops of the Russian armed forces.”

Ukraine’s national atomic energy company Energoatom said in a post on its official Telegram account that Orlov’s statement appeared to have been made under duress. “There is a high probability that the recent speech of the mayor of Enerhodar was recorded under the barrel of a machine gun,” the post said.

Energoatom said similar videos may appear from other officials “detained by the occupiers,” and it urged caution and vigilance.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanded early Friday that Russia “cease its attack” on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and said he would seek an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council “in the coming hours” to discuss the fire. London will also immediately raise the issue with Moscow, Johnson’s office said in a statement.

Before the Russian military takeover, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia plant said in an email that the site had been “under artillery fire” since 1:40 a.m. local time Friday and confirmed that fires had broken out. Only one of the plant’s six reactors was still generating power for the grid, the spokesman said. Before the Russian invasion, 15 reactors around Ukraine supplied half the country’s electricity.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russian forces had surrounded and fired on the Zaporizhzhia site. “Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!” he said on Twitter.

Other Ukrainian authorities said the blaze occurred in a training building at the plant and confirmed that it had been extinguished and that there were “no victims.” A regional military leader in Ukraine, Oleksandr Starukh, said on social media that the head of the plant “assured that the nuclear safety of the facility is ensured as of now” but added that the situation “remains extremely complicated.”

Ukrainian firefighters struggled to access the nuclear plant because of Russian shelling in the area, according to a senior Ukrainian government official.

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Zelensky spoke by phone about the fire with President Biden and European Union officials, a Ukrainian official said. The White House confirmed the call.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former adviser to Biden when he was vice president, said in an interview on Twitter that the reactor models built at the Zaporizhzhia plant were safer and better protected than the Chernobyl reactors.

“It’s not as dangerous as Chernobyl, but tank fire and nuclear reactors are never a good combination,” he said. He said key questions were whether there was any damage to the water pumps used to cool the reactors, whether the connection to the grid had been cut and whether transmission lines were intact.

“War is unpredictable and can lead in different directions. And when you have nuclear powers at play, it is even more unpredictable,” Wolfsthal said.

Gregory Jaczko, who served as the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama, said if the fire reached an area with fuel, that could lead to a “significant release” of radiation. Another pressing concern is making sure any of the radioactive spent fuel on the premises is kept cool, said Jaczko, who did not have direct knowledge of the situation.

James Acton, a physicist and co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said a worst-case scenario would be more akin to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, when a tsunami disabled the plant’s cooling system. “The reactors there just couldn’t cool themselves, and it caused significant radioactive emissions,” he said.

If damage to the grid occurred, the reactors would have to fall back on diesel generators, which are not designed for use over the long term.

About 1:30 a.m. local time on Friday, a live stream by the Zaporizhzhia plant, verified by The Washington Post, captured bright white flashes that illuminated the area in front of the facility.

At least eight military vehicles were seen positioned on the main street leading directly to the plant. White and ashen-gray smoke clouded the soundless feed.

Ten minutes later, at 1:40 a.m., the Enerhodar mayor posted on his Telegram channel that the plant was on fire. Video clips of the live stream posted as late as 11 p.m. showed an empty street — indicating that the vehicles had moved into the area before the flames.

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Over the next hour, more vehicles arrived, some driving outside the view of the camera, toward the rest of the plant. The view then pans right to show that a white building appears to be on fire, a bright blaze obscuring the entrance.

Shortly afterward, munitions were seen being fired across the screen, and two blasts appeared to make contact — the latter striking the top of the building nearest the camera.

The attack came after a large crowd gathered Wednesday with Ukrainian flags, as well as barricades of cars, trucks, tires and sandbags, to block the road to Enerhodar from Russian troops.

“It is extremely important that the nuclear power plants are not put at risk in any way,” IAEA Director General Grossi said earlier this week. He added that “an accident involving the nuclear facilities in Ukraine could have severe consequences for public health and the environment.”

Grossi said Wednesday at a news conference that two sites where radioactive materials are present had already been hit in the fighting. The damage to those waste-disposal facilities in Kyiv and Kharkiv did not lead to the release of radioactive material, he said, though he still expressed concern.

“One of the unique features of this situation is that this is an ongoing military conflict taking place in a country with a vast nuclear program,” Grossi told reporters in Vienna.

“There is a lot of nuclear material present,” he said. “You could have a situation where you have low-level waste, a release of radioactive material. What we have to ensure is that these things don’t happen.”

John Hudson, Doug MacMillan, Liz Sly, Dan Lamothe, Paul Sonne, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Atthar Mirza, Shane Harris, Amy Cheng, Maria Paul, Robyn Dixon and Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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