Ukraine live briefing: Backup generators prevented ‘radiation accident’ at Zaporizhzhia plant, Zelensky says

The aftermath of Russian shelling in the town of Bakhmut, in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, on Wednesday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)
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Europe’s largest nuclear power plant came closer than ever to a radiation disaster after ongoing fighting near the Zaporizhzhia facility cut it off from Ukraine’s electricity grid on Thursday, causing a massive power outage in the area, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, amid heightened fears of a coming calamity.

It was the first time in the Zaporizhzhia plant’s history that it had been disconnected from the grid, Ukrainian officials said. Backup diesel generators immediately kicked in to help sustain critical operations, but if they had not, “we would already be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” Zelensky said. Russian troops have occupied the plant for months, and international monitors have issued increasingly dire please for the site’s demilitarization. Ukrainian and Russian officials traded blame for the shelling that triggered the outage.

“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster,” Zelensky said in an evening address.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Key developments

  • Ukraine informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog that the nuclear plant lost connection to its power line “at least twice” but that it was running again, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement. Even though it’s controlled by Russian forces, Ukrainian staffers continue to operate the facility.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron met with Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the IAEA, in Paris on Thursday to underline his “grave concern” about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia site. He also reiterated French support for an IAEA mission to be deployed to Ukraine “as soon as possible,” the Élysée Palace said in a statement.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to increase the size of the Russian military from 1.9 million to 2.04 million, Russian media outlets reported. The personnel increase of 137,000 is to take effect on Jan. 1. The Kremlin still terms the war in Ukraine a “special military operation.”
  • Victims of a Russian missile attack on Chaplyne include an 11-year-old who died under the rubble of a house and a 6-year-old caught in a car fire, Kirill Timoshenko, a Ukrainian presidential aide, said on Telegram. He said 25 people were killed in total and 31 injured. Russia claimed that it used an Iskander missile to kill 200 Ukrainian service members there and destroy 10 units of military equipment headed to the eastern Donbas region, but did not provide evidence. Zelensky promised to make Moscow pay for “everything they have done.” The attack came exactly six months into the war and on Ukraine’s Independence Day.
  • President Biden called Zelensky on Thursday to discuss an almost $3 billion U.S. military aid package. Zelensky thanked Biden for “the unwavering U.S. support” for Ukrainians — both “security and financial,” Zelensky tweeted after the call. Biden congratulated Ukraine on its independence day and reaffirmed the United States’ support for the country, according to a White House readout. The two leaders called for the full return of control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to Ukraine, the readout added.
  • A Russian court severely restricted freedoms for a former Russian mayor and Kremlin critic, pending an investigation on charges of “discrediting” the nation’s armed forces. Yevgeny Roizman, who served as mayor of Russia’s fourth-most-populous city, Yekaterinburg, was released from custody Thursday but is barred from attending public events, communicating with anyone outside of close family and lawyers, and using the internet or telephone, the Associated Press reported. First detained Wednesday, Roizman told reporters he was being investigated “basically for one phrase, ‘the invasion of Ukraine,’” reported Reuters.
  • Kyiv City Council renamed 95 streets that once had names related to Russia and Soviet past, in a “de-Russification” effort, Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko announced Thursday on Telegram. He said the new names, which were supported by the public in a vote, will “perpetuate the memory” of significant Ukrainian historical events, famous figures and heroes who “fought for the independence of our state” — in particular, in the modern Russian-Ukrainian war, Klitschko added. Some renaming examples are Michurina Street to Marine Corps Street; Marshal Malinovsky Street to Heroiv Polku “Azov” Street; Bundarina Street to Ukrainian Revival Street; and Peterska Street to Londonska Street, he said.

Battlefield updates

  • Russia is maintaining “an enhanced military presence” around the Zaporizhzhia power plant, according to a daily intelligence briefing from Britain’s Defense Ministry. It said that while Russia occupies the facility, the principal risks include “disruption to the reactors’ cooling systems, damage to its backup power supply, or errors by workers operating under pressure.” United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Putin to remove his troops from the area around the plant, something Russia has previously rejected.
  • Russian rockets targeted the Vyshgorod area directly north of Kyiv early Thursday, but no casualties were reported, regional governor Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram. Russian forces largely avoided Kyiv on Independence Day, despite air raid sirens and warnings of strikes on the capital. Instead, they targeted front lines near cities such as such as Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Dnipro with artillery attacks, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said.
  • Moscow has “instructed officials to begin preparing” for staged referendums in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine that “could begin in a matter of days or weeks,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. Ukrainian officials have warned for months that Moscow is planning to hold rigged elections and use the results as a pretext to illegally annex more of Ukraine’s territory.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted that a slowdown in attacks was all part of a plan. Shoigu said Russia has intentionally slowed its attacks to avoid civilian casualties, an explanation offered repeatedly by Russian officials to explain apparent military setbacks.
  • The Washington Post’s visual forensics team has analyzed and catalogued a database of 251 videos since the war began, exposing the horrors of the conflict. Russia’s invasion is one of the most documented wars ever. Citizens, public officials and soldiers have regularly posted videos that show bodies in neighborhoods, trails of missiles streaking through the skies and smoldering ruins.

Global impact

  • Pope Francis will not meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox church, who supports the war in Ukraine, next month, according to Russian state media. Francis was due to meet Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally, on the sidelines of a summit of global religious leaders in Kazakhstan in September. Also on Thursday, Kyiv lodged a diplomatic complaint with the Vatican’s ambassador to Ukraine, criticizing Francis for saying that a slain purveyor of Russian disinformation was among the “innocent" victims of the war.
  • Facebook and Twitter say they have disrupted a web of accounts covertly seeking to promote narratives supporting the interests of the United States and its allies, including on the war in Ukraine, while opposing countries such as Russia, China and Iran. The report from social media analytics firm Graphika and Stanford University showed a rare instance in which a U.S.-sponsored campaign targeting foreign audiences, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, was found to violate the companies’ rules.
  • British front pages Thursday were filled with outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s surprise visit to Kyiv. Many criticized the lame-duck leader for making his third appearance in the country on its Independence Day, but others praised his consistent support of Ukraine. He also pledged $64 million more in military aid. When asked in Kyiv whether he wished he was as popular in Britain as in Ukraine, Johnson simply answered, “Yes.” He leaves office on Sept. 6.
  • Officials in Riga, Latvia, dismantled a prominent Soviet monument Thursday. In a live-streamed video, onlookers could be seen cheering as the obelisk collapsed.

From our correspondents

Threat of nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine adds to global energy chaos: Few countries understand the risks posed by nuclear energy like Ukraine. Just a few hours’ drive from Kyiv is the now-decommissioned Chernobyl power plant, the site of perhaps the world’s worst nuclear accident and certainly the most notorious.

Yet despite the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine never gave up on nuclear energy. The country has four nuclear power plants operating 15 reactors. It is one of the most nuclear-reliant countries on earth. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, these plants provided 51 percent of Ukraine’s electricity in 2020 — a vital source for a middle-income country.

The paradox of risk and reward from nuclear power has been brought to the fore by the war. Earlier this year, Russia’s invasion had led many countries to reconsider nuclear power, given the geopolitical reality of fossil fuels. Germany, now mulling a delay to the planned shutdown of its nuclear plants to enable it to ween itself off Russian gas, is just the latest.