Russian shelling sets Ukrainian nuclear plant ablaze, raising fears of disaster

Officials say radiation levels normal, but plant spokesman warns accident can happen at any moment, with firefighters unable to reach flames

A still from a video showing a building on fire at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine on March 2, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)
A still from a video showing a building on fire at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine on March 2, 2022. (Screen capture: YouTube)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces pressed their attack on a crucial energy-producing Ukrainian city by shelling Europe’s largest nuclear plant early Friday, sparking a fire and raising fears that radiation could leak from the damaged power station.

The assault on the eastern city of Enerhodar and its Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant came as the invasion entered its second week with Russian forces gaining ground in their bid to cut off the country from the sea. Elsewhere, another round of talks between the two sides yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors inside Ukraine to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid.

Nuclear plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television that shells were falling directly on the facility and had set fires to one of its six reactors. That reactor is under renovation and not operating, but there is nuclear fuel inside, he said.

He later clarified to CNN that there had been fires on other buildings at the site, though reactors also suffered damage. He warned an accident could occur at any moment.

Firefighters could not get near the flames because they were being shot at, he said, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a plea to the Russians to stop the assault and allow fire teams inside, warning that the damage would be 10 times worse than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire,” Tuz said in a video statement. “There is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe.”

The attack renewed fears that the invasion could result in damage to one of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors and trigger another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital.

In a video address posted online just before 4 a.m. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “nuclear terror.”

The American Nuclear Society condemned the attack but said the latest radiation levels remained within natural background levels.

“The real threat to Ukrainian lives continues to be the violent invasion and bombing of their country,” the group said in a statement from President Steven Nesbit and Executive Director and CEO Craig Piercy.

In this photo taken on Thursday, June 12, 2008, a power-generating unit at the Zaporozhiya nuclear power plant is seen in the city of Enerhodar, in southern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Olexander Prokopenko, file)

The plant’s reactor is a different type than the one used at Chernobyl, and there should be little risk if the containment vessel is not damaged and outside power can be restored, said Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council and former special adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

“Everyone needs to take a step back and not jump to conclusions,” Wolfsthal, now a senior adviser at Global Zero, said on Twitter.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was in contact with authorities in Ukraine. The agency’s director general, Mariano Grossi, urged military forces to refrain from violence near the plant.

The nuclear watchdog later said it had been told radiation levels were normal and “essential” equipment had not been affected.

The mayor of Enerhodar said earlier that Ukrainian forces were battling Russian troops on the city’s outskirts. Video showed flames and black smoke rising above the city of more than 50,000, with people streaming past wrecked cars, just a day after the UN atomic watchdog agency expressed grave concern that the fighting could cause accidental damage to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors.

The Ukrainian state atomic energy company reported that a Russian military column was heading toward the nuclear plant. Loud shots and rocket fire were heard late Thursday.

“Many young men in athletic clothes and armed with Kalashnikovs have come into the city. They are breaking down doors and trying to get into the apartments of local residents,” the statement from Energoatom said.

Later, a live streamed security camera linked from the homepage of the Zaporizhzhia plant showed what appeared to be armored vehicles rolling into the facility’s parking lot and shining spotlights on the building where the camera was mounted.

There were then what appeared to be bright muzzle flashes from vehicles, followed by nearly simultaneous explosions in the surrounding buildings. Smoke then rose into the frame and drifted away.

While the huge Russian armored column threatening Kyiv appeared bogged down outside the capital, Vladimir 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.

Shortly before fighting broke out at the plant, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on the West to close the skies over the country’s nuclear plants as fighting intensified. “It is a question of the security of the whole world!” he said in a statement.

The US and NATO allies have ruled out creating a no-fly zone since the move would pit Russian and Western military forces against each other.

The Russians announced the capture of the southern city of Kherson, a vital Black Sea port of 280,000, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed the takeover of the government headquarters there, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.

A Russian soldier points a gun from a Russian military truck as it drives through an undisclosed location in Ukraine, on March 3, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. The battles have knocked out the city’s electricity, heat and water systems, as well as most phone service, officials said. Food deliveries to the city were also cut.

Associated Press video from the port city shows the assault lighting up the darkening sky above largely deserted streets and medical teams treating civilians, including one inside a clinic who appeared to be a child. Doctors were unable to save the person.

Severing Ukraine’s access to the Black and Azov seas would deal a crippling blow to its economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor to Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014.

Overall, the outnumbered, outgunned Ukrainians have put up stiff resistance, staving off the swift victory that Russia appeared to have expected. But a senior US defense 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.

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.

Ukrainian servicemen walk as fire and smoke rise over a building following shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

“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 World War II.

The second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations was held in neighboring Belarus. But the two sides appeared far apart going into the meeting, and Putin warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin’s demand for its “demilitarization” and declare itself neutral, renouncing its bid to join NATO.

Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron he was determined to press on with his attack “until the end,” according to Macron’s office.

The two sides said that they tentatively agreed to allow cease-fires in areas designated safe corridors, and that they would seek to work out the necessary details quickly. A Zelensky adviser also said a third round of talks will be held early next week.

Despite a profusion of evidence of civilian casualties and destruction of property by the Russian military, Putin decried what he called an “anti-Russian disinformation campaign” and insisted that Moscow uses “only precision weapons to exclusively destroy military infrastructure.”

Andrey Goncharuk, 68, a member of territorial defense, wipes his face in the backyard of a house that was damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Putin claimed that the Russian military had already offered safe corridors for civilians to flee, but he asserted without evidence that Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” were preventing people from leaving and were using them as human shields.

He also hailed Russian soldiers as heroes in a video call with members of Russia’s Security Council, and ordered additional payments to families of men killed or wounded.

A top Russian officer, Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky, commander of an airborne division, was killed in the fighting earlier this week, an officers organization in Russia reported.

The Pentagon set up a direct communication link to Russia’s Ministry of Defense earlier this week to avoid the possibility of a miscalculation sparking conflict between Moscow and Washington, according to a US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the link had not been announced.

A member of the civil defense takes a shooting position as a vehicle approaches the checkpoint in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

The fighting has sent more than 1 million people fleeing Ukraine, according to the UN, which fears those refugee numbers could skyrocket.

The immense Russian column of hundreds of tanks and other vehicles still appeared to be stalled roughly 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Kyiv and had made no real progress in days, amid fuel and food shortages, according to U.S. authorities.

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