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04
March
2022

Zelenskiy says ‘Europe must wake up’ as Russian shelling sparks fire at Ukraine nuclear power plant

A fire has burned for several hours at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, after shelling from Russian forces prompted widespread concern about the safety of Ukraine’s atomic infrastructure.

The blaze, located in a training building on the perimeter of the site, started early on Friday morning and was extinguished by about 6.20am Ukraine time. Ukrainian authorities said that the site had been secured and the reactors were safe, and the IAEA said the fire had not affected “essential” equipment. However, the incident underlined the dangers to a nuclear plant in the midst of a conflict.

“Europe must wake up now,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a video statement on Friday. “The largest nuclear station in Europe is on fire. Right now Russian tanks are shelling nuclear units. Those are the tank that have thermal vision, so they know where they are shelling.”

“If there will be an explosion, it will the end to all of us, the end of Europe, the evacuation of Europe,” Zelenskiy said. “Only immediate action of Europe can stop Russian troops and prevent the death of Europe from the disaster at a nuclear station.”

He accused Russia of resorting to “nuclear terror”.

“No country other than Russia has ever fired on nuclear power units,” he said. “This is the first time in our history. In the history of mankind. The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror.”

A spokesperson for the nuclear plant, Andriy Tuz, said one of the reactor blocks had been struck in the bombardment.

In a video posted on social media, Tuz said: “Firefighters can’t access the site and extinguish the fire because of heavy shelling. The first energy unit has already been hit. Stop!”Zelenskiy accuses Russia of ‘nuclear terrorism’ after fire at power plant – video

The foreign minister, Dymtry Kuleba, said the Russian army was firing on the plant “from all sides”. “Fire has already broke out,” he tweeted. A video feed from the plant verified by Reuters showed shelling and smoke rising near a building at the plant compound.

The state-run atomic energy agency, Energoatom, later confirmed that one reactor block was hit by shelling.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said, shortly before 4am Ukraine time, that it had been informed by the Ukrainian nuclear regulator there was no change in radiation levels at the plant. The agency said its director general, Rafael Grossi, appealed for a ceasefire and warned of “severe danger” if the reactors were hit.

At about 6am Ukraine time emergency services said the fire in the training building had been “localised”. The fire was extinguished shortly later, and there were no injuries among the plant staff, the emergency services said.

Joe Biden called the Ukrainian president at about 3.40am Kyiv time. According to the White House, Zelenskiy updated the US president on the incident and the two leaders urged “Russia to cease its military activities in the area and allow firefighters and emergency responders to access the site”.

British prime minister Boris Johnson also spoke to Zelenskiy after news of the fire broke. A Downing Street spokeswoman called the situation “gravely concerning”, adding: “The Prime Minister said the reckless actions of President Putin could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe. He said the UK would do everything it could to ensure the situation did not deteriorate further.”

“The Prime Minister said he would be seeking an emergency UN Security Council meeting in the coming hours, and that the UK would raise this issue immediately with Russia and close partners. “Both leaders agreed a ceasefire was crucial.”

The confinement chambers of a nuclear reactor are built to withstand heavy impact and even bombing, while the VVER pressurised water reactor itself is designed to shut down in an emergency. VVER reactors are considered much safer than the type of reactor that blew up in Chernobyl in 1986, for example.

But nuclear safety experts warned that any interruption to the power supply that affects the cooling system could start a chain of events that could lead to disaster, as could a direct hit on the spent fuel pools which are not as well protected as the reactors.

“If the building is not damaged and if the reactors entered safe shut down, and have secondary or tertiary cooling systems then there should be little risk. If those conditions are not met, there is a significant risk,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the national security council, said on Twitter.

The Zaporizhzhia plant in south-eastern Ukraine – which houses six of the country’s 15 nuclear reactors – as well as the neighbouring town of Energodar, have been surrounded by Russian troops since the beginning of the week.

Crowds of local people had stood in the road leading up to the plant, forming a human barrier to the invading force.

The mayor of Energodar, Dmitry Orlov, said on Friday morning that Russian shelling had caused the fire and posted a video calling on Russian forces to stop the bombardment, saying it could trigger a disaster with effects far beyond Ukraine.

Mariana Budjeryn, an Ukrainian expert at the project on managing the atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center said: “Saying that a reactor building is hit doesn’t tell us much, because the most vulnerable [part of] this is the electricity and water supply.”

“If the electricity is taken out, the back-up generators kick in, but if those don’t kick in or their diesel fuel is set on fire, for example, the pumps can’t pump cold water into the reactor and into the spent fuel pools. That’s necessary to keep the nuclear reaction moderated. Otherwise the water will boil out and the core will go critical and explode,” Budjeryn said.

She said confinement chambers were designed to withstand some level of impact and could stop the release of radiation even if the core exploded.

She warned however that the pools holding spent fuel rods could be more of a worry. “The fuel there is not as active, but they are usually overstuffed,” Budjeryn said. Less active but more tightly packed material was also dangerous if the cooling system fails, she said.

“And spent fuel pools are not covered by hardened concrete confinement chambers,” Budjeryn added.

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