Russian military forces on Friday seized control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, according to Ukraine’s nuclear agency, shortly after a night of Russian shelling set a building ablaze at the complex.
The assault was met with widespread condemnation as many in Europe woke to news of the attack on the continent’s largest nuclear facility, in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.
Authorities say the fire at the site has now been extinguished by emergency services and radiation levels are normal.
Situated in the southeast of Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhya complex houses six of the country’s 15 operational nuclear power reactors. These reactors produce about half of the country’s electricity.
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said personnel at the Zaporizhzhia facility were monitoring the condition of power units to ensure they could operate safely. The agency said there was currently no information on whether casualties or injuries were sustained in the shelling.
It comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its ninth day and amid conflicting reports about which side controls the strategically important Black Sea port city of Kherson.
World leaders condemned Russia’s attack on the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the “reckless actions” of Russian President Vladimir Putin could “directly threaten the safety of all of Europe.”
U.S. President Joe Biden urged Moscow to stop its military activities around the site, while Canada’s Justin Trudeau said the “horrific attacks” at the nuclear site were unacceptable and called on Russia to “cease immediately.” All three heads of government spoke to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by telephone.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has put its Incident and Emergency Centre in “full response mode” due to the situation at the nuclear site and appealed for a halt of the use of force. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is scheduled to hold a press conference on the situation at 9:30 a.m. London time.
The IAEA had previously warned Russia’s war with Ukraine had raised the risk of nuclear accidents and called for restraint from all actions that could jeopardize the safe operations of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.
Zelenskyy: ‘Europe needs to wake up’
Ukraine’s Zelenskyy on Friday issued another appeal to European leaders, calling on their support in a video message shortly after a night of intense fighting.
“Europe needs to wake up,” Zelenskyy said in a video statement, according to a translation.
“We are issuing a warning, no country has ever shot at nuclear blocks except for Russia,” he continued. “For the first time ever in our history, in the history of humankind, the terrorist country has reverted to nuclear terror.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said via Twitter on Friday that Russian military forces had been “firing on all sides” at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. He warned: “If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”
An explosion and fire at the Chornobyl power plant on April 26, 1986, led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Russian troops took control of the area around the defunct power plant last week.
Estimates of the numbers of direct and indirect casualties from the Chornobyl disaster vary, although environmental group Greenpeace puts the eventual death toll from cancers caused by Chornobyl at close to 100,000.
The Chornobyl exclusion zone, a vast and empty land of roughly 1,000 square miles around the shuttered reactor disaster, lies between the capital city of Kyiv and the Belarus-Ukraine border.