Ukraine and the West expressed fury on Friday after Europe’s largest atomic power plant was attacked and seized by invading Russian forces, which continued to shell major cities.
The six reactors at Zaporizhzhia, which can power four million homes, appeared undamaged by the fighting and a fire that broke out in a training facility.
But Ukraine accused the Kremlin of “nuclear terror,” and US envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the attack was “incredibly reckless and dangerous.”
Moscow’s UN ambassador said accusations that Russian forces had shelled the plant were simply part of “an unprecedented campaign of lies.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack at the nuclear plant “could have stopped the story, the history of Ukraine, the history of Europe.”
“Russian tank commanders knew what they were firing at,” he alleged, adding: “The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror.”
As a precautionary measure, Ukrainian authorities were distributing iodine tablets to residents living near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor.
Ukrainians living close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant attack are being given iodine tablets after the plant was targeted by Russian rockets and gunfirehttps://t.co/DB3Ij6vHDK pic.twitter.com/s9ndyssLd4
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) March 4, 2022
The New York Times said a fire that erupted at the site blazed some 1500 feet (500 meters) from the site’s nearest reactor.
The US ambassador to the UN said on Friday that Russia’s “reckless” overnight attack was a dangerous escalation that “represents a dire threat to all of Europe and the world.
“By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council.
Experts have sought to temper fears of nuclear catastrophe, however, stressing that a Chernobyl-like disaster was far less likely to occur at Zaporizhzhia.
“The design is a lot different to the Chernobyl reactor, which did not have a containment building,” CNN quoted Mark Wenman, a reader in nuclear materials at Imperial College London, as saying.
“The design of the VVER [type of reactor used at Zaporizhzhia] is inherently more safe and protected than the Chernobyl RBMK systems,” added Jon Wolfsthal, a senior adviser at Global Zero and a former senior official at the US National Security Council.
“Unlike Chernobyl, the ZNPP has a large cement containment building around the reactor,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “This means any foreseeable radiation event — such as one caused by a power spike or the failure of a fuel element — can be held inside the plant itself. The reactor was designed in a way that when it loses power, it shuts down into a safe state that stops producing new nuclear reactions.”
However, he added, “Tank fire and nuclear reactors are never a good combination.”
Thomas-Greenfield called the attack “incredibly reckless and dangerous. And it threatened the safety of civilians across Russia, Ukraine, and Europe.”
“Nuclear facilities cannot become part of this conflict,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
She urged Russian leader Vladimir Putin to end the invasion of Ukraine.
“Not only has he not listened, we’ve just witnessed a dangerous new escalation that represents a dire threat to all of Europe and the world,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
“President Putin must stop this humanitarian catastrophe by ending this war and ceasing these unconscionable attacks against the people of Ukraine,” she said. “Mr. Putin must stop this madness, and stop it now.”
Moscow’s ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia said Russian troops had exchanged small arms fire with Ukrainian forces at Zaporizhzhia, but had not shelled the facility in southern Ukraine.
He said the fighting occurred at a training complex “located just outside the territory of the nuclear power plant” and accused “Ukrainian saboteurs” of setting fire to the training facility.
“The operation of the nuclear power plant continues normally,” Nebenzia said. “Nothing threatens the safety of the six power units.
“There is no threat of a release of radioactive material.”
Sergiy Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian envoy to the UN, lashed out at his Russian counterpart, accusing him of spreading “lies.”
He said Russian troops in control of the nuclear facility were refusing access to Ukrainian inspectors.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he was prepared to travel to Ukraine to ensure the security of the country’s nuclear facilities.
He told the Security Council that a “projectile” hit a building adjacent to a block of six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, sparking a fire that didn’t affect its operation, although he stressed there is nothing normal when military forces are in charge of the site.
Grossi has repeatedly stressed that any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants must be avoided.
“I remain gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, especially about the country’s nuclear power plants, which must be able to continue operating without any safety or security threats,” he said.
“Any accident caused as a result of the military conflict could have extremely serious consequences for people and the environment, in Ukraine and beyond.”