Attack on nuclear site a 'dangerous new escalation' in Russian invasion, U.S. says

Russian troops Friday seized the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe after a middle-of-the-night attack that set it on fire and briefly raised worldwide fears of a catastrophe in the most chilling turn yet in Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Fire out at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant; Russia controls site but Ukrainian staff are operating it

A view shows a damaged administrative building of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Enerhodar, the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine in this handout picture released March 4, 2022 (National Nuclear Energy Generating Company Energoatom/Reuters)

Russian troops Friday seized the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe after a middle-of-the-night attack that set it on fire and briefly raised worldwide fears of a catastrophe in the most chilling turn yet in Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

While the vast Russian armoured column threatening Kyiv remained stalled outside the capital, President Vladimir Putin's military has launched hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites around the country and made significant gains on the ground in the south in an apparent bid to cut off Ukraine's access to the sea.

WATCH | Fire at Ukraine nuclear power plant adds layers of fear:

Fire at Ukraine nuclear power plant adds layers of fear

2 years ago
Duration 2:32
Featured VideoShelling near a nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which caused a fire, has led to renewed calls to create a no-fly zone over the country and has shaken already-frightened residents, many of whom are trying to flee.

In the attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar, the chief of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, said a Russian projectile hit a training centre, not any of the six reactors. No radiation was released, UN and Ukrainian officials said.

A statement from the IAEA, which is in touch with officials on the ground, said that Russia had taken control of the site — but that Ukrainian staff were still operating the plant. 

No changes in radiation levels

Ukraine's state nuclear regulator said earlier that no changes in radiation levels have been recorded so far. Grossi later said that while no radioactive material was released, two people were injured in the fire that broke out.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that "several people" had been injured and killed. The statement did not offer any specifics about the casualties.

Surveillance camera footage shows the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant after shelling in Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine on Friday. (Zaporizhzhya NPP via Reuters)

"Russia has consciously undertaken an armed attack on the nuclear power site, an action that violated all international agreements within the IAEA," said the statement, which said that plant staff "are monitoring the condition of power units and ensuring their operation in accordance with the requirements of technical regulations for safe operation."

The statement from Ukrainian officials also expressed "disappointment" with the IAEA, saying the organization's statement "did not go far enough to include any mention of the attacking side."

The attack caused worldwide concern — and evoked memories of the world's worst nuclear disaster, at Ukraine's Chornobyl plant.

The shelling of Zaporizhzhia came as the Russian military advanced on nearby Enerhodar, a strategic city on the Dnieper River, and gained ground in their bid to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. That move would deal a severe blow to Ukraine's economy and could worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.

WATCH | Russia claims nuclear plant caught in firefight under Kremlin protection:

Russia claims nuclear plant caught in firefight under Kremlin protection

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Featured VideoRussia claims that a Ukrainian nuclear power plant that was caught in the crossfire of a shootout is now safe and under the Kremlin's protection. Few Western countries are buying Russia's version of events, however.

More than 840 children have been wounded in the war, and 28 have been killed, according to Ukraine's government. A total of 331 civilians had been confirmed killed in the invasion, but the true number is probably much higher, the UN human rights office said.

Initial reports from the power plant conflicted over whether one or two fires broke out at the plant.

The confusion itself underscored the dangers of active fighting near a nuclear power plant. It was the second time since the Russian invasion began just over a week ago that concerns about a nuclear accident or a release of radiation materialized, following a previous battle at Chornobyl.

WATCH | Safety systems are fully functional at Ukraine's largest nuclear plant, IAEA boss says

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Featured VideoRussia’s main attack force has been stalled for days in a miles-long convoy north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. So why haven’t Ukraine or its allies taken out the Russian troops?

The regulator noted in a statement on Facebook the importance of maintaining the ability to cool nuclear fuel, saying the loss of such ability could lead to an accident even worse than the 1986 Chornobyl disaster or the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns in Japan. It also noted that there is a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at the site, though there was no sign that facility was hit by shelling.

Emergency UN Security Council meeting

The assault led to phone calls between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders. The U.S. Department of Energy activated its nuclear incident response team as a precaution.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the episode "underscores the recklessness with which the Russians have been perpetrating this unprovoked invasion."

Zelensky also spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about the nuclear plant. 

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Featured VideoAs Russia's war in Ukraine continues, Royal Military College of Canada professor Walter Dorn addresses what could be slowing down the Kremlin's progress, the strategic moves on both sides of the border and what comes next in the conflict.

The UN Security Council held an emergency open meeting on the attack on Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant on Friday. 

The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Friday. Linda Thomas-Greenfield demanded assurances from Moscow that such an assault will not happen again. Speaking at the emergency meeting, Thomas-Greenfield said the attack reflected a "dangerous new escalation" in Russia's invasion.

Grossi, the head of the IAEA, told the meeting that the agency was informed by Russia a few days ago that its military forces were moving to take control of the plant, similar to troops' seizure last week of Chornobyl. He said the advance of Russian troops toward the perimeter of the power plant "was met with opposition and some group of civilians attacking the access to the plant." He stressed there is nothing normal when military forces are in charge of the site.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Sergiy Kyslytsya speaks during an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York City on Friday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Ukraine's UN ambassador accused Russia of committing "an act of nuclear terrorism" with the attack. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told the meeting that as a result of Russian shelling on the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the fire broke out and killed and injured several people.

The plant is currently under control of the Russian armed forces, he said, and "it is alarming that several employees responsible for maintaining nuclear security at the site have reportedly been killed by Russian soldiers," and "there has been no rotation of personnel since yesterday morning."

Those claims have not been independently verified.

Russia's ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia rejected allegations that its forces had attacked the plant, blaming a "Ukrainian sabotage group" for setting the fire.

Kyslytsya dismissed Nebenzia's claim as "lies."

The UN meeting comes after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a briefing on Friday that Russia's "reckless actions" around the nuclear plant highlight the danger of the war. The NATO chief again urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the fighting, withdraw troops and engage in diplomatic efforts in good faith.

NATO allies rejected Ukraine's demand for no-fly zones on Friday, saying they were increasing support but that stepping in directly would lead to a broader, even more brutal European war so far limited to Russia's assault on its neighbour.

In an emotional speech in the middle of the night, Zelensky said he feared an explosion that would be "the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe."

But most experts saw nothing to indicate an impending disaster.

"The real threat to Ukrainian lives continues to be the violent invasion and bombing of their country," the American Nuclear Society said in a statement.

Putin's forces have brought their superior firepower to bear over the past few days, launching hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites around the country and making significant gains in the south.

With the invasion in its second week, another round of talks between Russia and Ukraine yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid to the country, overturned by a war that has sent more than one million people fleeing over the border and countless others sheltering underground night after night.

A handful of cities are without heat and at least one is struggling to get food and water.

What's happening on the ground:

  • Footage shot in Motyzhyn, near Kyiv, shows the body of a woman alongside a vehicle, its windows shattered and its windshield wipers still swishing. Petro Lytvyn, who lives near the site, said three people died amid shooting. "Who was shooting we don't know," he said.
  • In Enerhodar, the mayor said Russian shelling stopped a few hours before dawn, and residents of the city of more than 50,000 who had stayed in shelters overnight could return home. The city awoke with no heat, however, because the shelling damaged the city's heating main, he said. Hear more details about what's happening at the nearby nuclear site from the IAEA director, who outlined the safety situation and what he knows about operations at a press briefing on Friday.
  • In the south, the mayor of Mariupol said Friday that the city has no water, heat or electricity and is running out of food after coming under attack by Russian forces for days. "We are simply being destroyed," said Vadym Boychenko, as he appealed for a humanitarian corridor so civilians can evacuate the port city.
  • A Russian airstrike on Thursday destroyed the power plant in Okhtyrka, leaving the city without heat or electricity, the head of the region said on Telegram. In the first days of the war, Russian troops attacked a military base in the city, located between Kharkiv and Kyiv, and officials said more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed. "We are trying to figure out how to get people out of the city urgently, because in a day the apartment buildings will turn into a cold stone trap without water, light or electricity," Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said.
A man throws a Molotov cocktail during a civilian self-defence course on the outskirts of Lviv, in western Ukraine, on Friday. (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)
  • In the northeast, along another major axis of the Russian attack, the cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv have been under bombardment since the start of the invasion, which worsened this week, but defenders are holding out.
  • In the capital region, Kyiv has been shelled but has so far been spared a major assault, with Russia's main attack force stalled for days in a miles-long convoy on a highway to the north.

Overall, the outnumbered, outgunned Ukrainians have put up stiff resistance, staving off the swift victory that Russia appeared to have expected. But a senior U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia's seizure of Crimea gave it a logistical advantage in that part of the country, with shorter supply lines that smoothed the offensive there.

WATCH | Ukraine's small towns mobilize to assist war effort: 

Radiation monitoring systems fully functional after fire at Ukrainian nuclear plant: IAEA

2 years ago
Duration 2:07
Featured VideoThe head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said the fire is now out a building in the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power plant, Europe's largest nuclear facility. The safety systems of the plant's reactors were not affected but the situation continues to be 'extremely tense and challenging,' he said.

Ukrainian leaders called on the people to defend their homeland by cutting down trees, erecting barricades in the cities and attacking enemy columns from the rear. In recent days, authorities have issued weapons to civilians and taught them how to make Molotov cocktails.

"Total resistance. ... This is our Ukrainian trump card, and this is what we can do best in the world," Oleksiy Arestovich, an aide to Zelensky, said in a video message, recalling guerrilla actions in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during the Second World War.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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