KYIV, Ukraine—Russian shelling in southern Ukraine caused a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant before Russian troops moved into the facility, according to local authorities and international observers, highlighting the increasingly indiscriminate nature of Moscow’s war while raising fears that it could lead to a global environmental disaster.
The fire, extinguished Friday morning, erupted at the Zaporizhzhia power plant’s training facility which is adjacent to its six nuclear reactors in the town of Enerhodar, Ukraine’s emergency service said. None of the six reactors, one of which is currently operational, were affected by the fire and there was no radiation leak at present.
Advance Russian forces pushing from the south reached Enerhodar on Wednesday. After attempted surrender negotiations failed, a large column of Russian forces attacked the city on Thursday. Webcam footage showed a large fireball rising behind a church in the city, a short distance from the nuclear facilities, and then two munitions, possibly illumination rounds, landed on the compound itself.
“What we understand is that this projectile is…coming from the Russian forces,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director General
told a press conference on Friday. Mr. Grossi said he was in touch with Russian and Ukrainian authorities and was offering travel to Ukraine to negotiate a framework aimed at ensuring the protection of nuclear sites.
told journalists on Friday that the attack was an act of terror that put all of Europe at risk.
“We survived the night that could have put an end to history,” he said, adding that an explosion of the plant would have caused six times the damage of the 1986 meltdown at Ukraine’s Chernobyl power plant, which sent radioactive clouds across Europe.
“Russian tankmen knew what they were shelling. Directly shooting at the power plant is unprecedented terror,” he said, reiterating his call on the West to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied Russian troops had fired at the building and blamed the Ukrainian military for the incident, which it called “an attempt at sabotage.”
“The purpose of this was to blame Russia for what happened,” the Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda cited the ministry as saying.
As of Friday morning, the management building at the Zaporizhzhya plant was under the control of Russian forces, said Energoatom, the operator of all Ukrainian nuclear power generators. Ukrainian staff at the plant were continuing their work. There have been fatalities among Ukrainian defenders of the facility, Energoatom said.
While the Russian government also said its troops were occupying the plant and surrounding areas, it and the IAEA’s Mr. Grossi stressed the plant’s Ukrainian staff were still operating the facility.
The war that Russian President
launched on Ukraine more than a week ago, aiming to overthrow its democratically elected government and end its alignment with the West, has run into fierce Ukrainian resistance. While Russian forces have advanced in the northeast and south of the country, the offensive has stalled around the capital, Kyiv, and Moscow has resorted more to indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods in cities like Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Sumy.
Russian shelling in the power plant area paused after 3 a.m. local time, Enerhodar Mayor Dmitry Orlov wrote on social media. Ukraine’s state emergency service said that the fire, which engulfed the third, fourth and fifth floors of the nuclear plant’s training building was extinguished at 6:20 a.m. For hours, Russian forces prevented the emergency service from dispatching firefighters to the site, it said.
At the time of the Russian attack, two of the six reactors were operating and the plant’s management switched off reactor No. 3 at 2:26 a.m., leaving only reactor No. 4 online, the service said. In addition to the Zaporizhzhia plant, Ukraine operates nine other nuclear reactors elsewhere in the country.
The shelling of the plant “just demonstrates the recklessness of this war and the importance of ending it,” said
secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as he greeted U.S. Secretary of State
Mr. Zelensky spoke with President Biden about the attack on the plant. Following the call, which occurred late Thursday night Washington time, Mr. Biden urged Russia to “cease its military activities in the area and allow firefighters and emergency responders to access the site,” according to the White House.
U.S. Energy Secretary
wrote on Twitter that she had spoken with Ukraine’s energy minister. “We have seen no elevated radiation readings near the facility,” she said. In a telephone call early Friday, British Prime Minister
told Mr. Zelensky that the U.K. would seek an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to address the shelling of the plant, his office said in a statement.
In recent days, the IAEA has underscored that Ukraine’s reactors have modernized safety procedures and are built to withstand major incidents. Agency officials have expressed more concern about a missile hitting nuclear waste facilities that are less protected and about the inability to get emergency repair teams in place because of the fighting.
Still, earlier this week, the IAEA expressed concern about the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear plants, noting that Russian military forces were advancing on the Zaporizhzhia facility.
Mr. Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said on Ukrainian television that the column of Russian armored vehicles broke into the city at around 4:30 p.m. local time on Thursday and started firing at the buildings of the nuclear compound from a short range without warning. There were casualties among the civilian population but it wasn’t possible to evacuate wounded people to hospitals quickly because of continued fighting, he said. As of 7:34 a.m. local time on Friday, Russian troops weren’t visible on Enerhodar’s streets, he said. The city was without heating because of damage caused by the attacks, he added.
Later in the morning, Mr. Orlov said in a video recording that no civilians were hurt, that Russian forces had only fired blanks, and that the local population shouldn’t try to oppose Russian troops. Ukrainian officials said the recording may have been made under duress.
A resident of Enerhodar who gave her name as Marina said she and her family had been sheltering at their home throughout the night and into the day.
“Our city doesn’t even have any bomb shelters,” she said. “They don’t tell us anything, and we can’t find out anything. If there’s an explosion, Ukraine, Europe and Russia will blow up together.”
The fire at the nuclear power plant comes after Moscow intensified its military offensive in southern Ukraine, penetrating the city of Kherson as Russian and Ukrainian negotiators agreed to establish “humanitarian corridors” to allow civilians to leave besieged cities.
Negotiators, however, failed to reach an agreement on an overall cease-fire, and Mr. Putin signaled he is determined to continue the war.
The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, said that the Azov Sea port, surrounded by Russian forces and relentlessly shelled, is “on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.” He said the city lacks food and needs a pause in the fighting to repair damaged electricity and water services to its 430,000 residents.
In Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson, the first regional capital seized by the Russian advance, occupation forces have taken over the local administration buildings but, for now at least, didn’t remove Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag from the regional government headquarters, according to residents.
Kherson Gov. Hennadiy Lahuta said Friday that Russia has bussed a large number of people from Crimea, the nearby peninsula that Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, and plans to organize a propaganda event on the city’s Freedom Square. These people would pretend to be local residents, wave Russian flags and ask for Kherson, home to 270,000 people, to be separated from Ukraine, he said. “Stay away from this theater of the absurd, don’t help the enemy,” he urged.
In several other towns previously seized by Russia, such as Melitopol, Kupyansk and Berdyansk, local residents have come out to the streets, waving Ukrainian flags, yelling at Russian soldiers to go home, and trying to block the movement of Russian columns.
Mr. Zelensky on Thursday called on residents of Russian-occupied areas such as Kherson to resist, saying that sooner or later the Russians would be forced to leave. The Ukrainian army urged civilians in the rear to focus on attacking lightly armed supply convoys, saying that Russian tanks on the front line would be useless without fuel or ammunition.
“We will chase them away, with shame,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Every occupier must know they will not obtain anything here. They will not have anyone submit to them. Anywhere they enter they will be exterminated.”
Ukraine’s military said Friday that the Russian military’s main effort continues to focus on surrounding Kyiv and weakening resistance in cities that have already been encircled. Amid heavy fighting, the Russian military has exhausted most of its operational reserves in the area, and is preparing to send additional forces to Ukraine, it said. Russia continues preparations for an amphibious assault on the port city of Odessa, Ukraine’s military added.
On Thursday night and Friday morning, Ukraine released footage of what it said was a successful pushback on Kyiv’s outskirts, with destroyed Russian armor and dead Russian soldiers on the streets of the towns of Bucha, Irpen and Hostomel in the northwest and the village of Peremoha in the northeast.
“Ukrainian armed forces have gained more tanks and armored personnel carriers as trophies than they received from Ukrainian defense industries in the past eight years,” Defense Minister
said Friday. He added that the Ukrainian military had to make “difficult decisions,” maneuvering away from some areas, in order to preserve its fighting forces. Ukraine also sank the flagship of its navy, Hetman Sahaydachny, that was under repair so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands, he said.
Mr. Putin said Thursday that Russia’s offensive was developing strictly according to plan and was achieving all its goals. In an acknowledgment of the fierceness of Ukrainian resistance, the Russian military said Wednesday that 498 of its soldiers have been killed in Ukraine. These fatalities included Maj. Gen. Andrey Sukhovetskiy, the deputy commander of the 41st Army. Ukrainian and Western officials say the real Russian death toll is much higher.
Ukraine hasn’t acknowledged its own military casualties, which are also believed to be high, but said that some 2,000 civilians have been killed in Russian attacks as of Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said on Friday that Russian forces had fired cluster munitions into at least three residential areas in Kharkiv on Monday, killing at least three civilians, an assessment based on interviews with witnesses and the analysis of videos and photographs. Cluster munitions open before landing and disperse smaller munitions, many of which often fail to explode and can become long-term hazards for civilians. Such munitions are banned by an international treaty that neither Ukraine nor Russia is party to.
In Russia, the government continued to tighten its control on information about the war, which it has described as a defensive operation focused mainly on military targets despite an abundance of evidence showing Russian forces have bombed residential areas and civilian infrastructure.
The lower house of parliament passed legislation Friday imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years for the dissemination of what it calls “fake news” about the actions of Russian soldiers. House speaker
said the law’s passage would be expedited so that it can be signed by Mr. Putin as soon as possible.
“There’s a chance that literally tomorrow its direct application will force those who lied and made statements discrediting our Armed Forces to face punishment, and a very harsh one,” Mr. Volodin was quoted as saying in a statement published on the website of the Duma, parliament’s lower house. It is unclear if the new law will apply to accredited foreign journalists or only to Russian-language content.
Russia moved swiftly after the start of its invasion to restrict the space for dissent and hammer Mr. Putin’s narrative that the offensive was going according to plan. Police have detained thousands of protesters across the country and blocked media outlets that refused to refer to the war using Mr. Putin’s euphemism of “special military operation.”
As of Friday, multiple news organizations had announced they were halting their operations under state pressure, including popular news outlet Meduza, TV station Dozhd, and radio station Ekho Moskvy, which launched in the waning days of the Soviet Union and has long been seen as a refuge for voices critical of the authorities even as the space for dissent narrowed under Mr. Putin.
—Matthew Luxmoore, Laurence Norman, Brett Forrest and Ann M. Simmons contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org
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