Ukraine accused Russia of blackmailing the world with nuclear catastrophe yesterday after its troops seized control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
The US led international condemnation of the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, describing it as a “war crime” and accusing President Putin of taking “his reign of terror one step further” by threatening the continent with a massive radiation leak.
International monitors have confirmed there has been no release of radioactive material at the plant, despite a fire in one of the buildings started by Russian shelling and a gun battle.
Military operations around nuclear sites and other critical civilian infrastructure were unacceptable and highly irresponsible, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s political affairs chief, told an emergency meeting of the security council yesterday. “Attacks on nuclear power facilities are contrary to international humanitarian law. Every effort should be taken to avoid a catastrophic nuclear incident,” she said.
Russia’s defence ministry spuriously blamed a “monstrous attack” by Ukrainian saboteurs for the fire before stating it was in control of the plant.
The State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine said there were many remaining dangers at the site; from workers being unable to do their critical jobs while the plant was occupied, to the possibility of unreported damage at one of the reactors.
The company that oversees the complex, Energoatom, warned that statements made by workers and local officials at the time of the Russian takeover might have been made under duress. “There is a high probability that the speech of the mayor of Enerhodar was recorded at the barrel of a machinegun,” it said, referring to a video Dmitry Orlov had posted shortly after the Russians seized control in which he told the public not to “provoke them”.
Hours earlier Orlov had made an urgent plea for help and described fighting so fierce that emergency workers had been unable to move wounded people from the plant to a hospital.
President Zelensky said that Russian control risked a catastrophic nuclear accident “like six Chernobyls”, describing the takeover as “terror on an unprecedented level”.
Ukraine’s government used the attack on the plant to launch a social media campaign calling for a no-fly zone over the country, saying other nuclear plants were at risk from the invasion. “Close the sky, save Ukraine, save the world,” the tagline read.
The UN security council was due to hold an emergency meeting last night to respond to the attack on the plant.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said: “We call upon the Russian president to absolutely cease attacking sites such as that. It’s not just dangerous for Ukraine and the Russians: it is dangerous for Europe. It is playing with fire.
“The Russian armed forces has in its arsenal a whole range of horrors that go way beyond capabilities that we would choose to have if you’re complying with Geneva conventions: the thermobaric vacuum bombs, for example, the cluster munitions that many of our countries have banned. Those are weapons they still use and the worrying sign [is] from President Putin, in his words, he seems to indicate no limit.”
Michael Podolyak, Zelensky’s chief adviser, said the Russian military was as culpable in the attack on Zaporizhzhya as its political leadership. “Literally every Russian soldier involved in this attack understood perfectly well all the possible consequences,” he said. “Never before has any state tried to blackmail with a massacre under a nuclear power plant, while conducting hostilities. Any shot from a tank, any hit by a rocket or air bomb on the station, can lead to a monstrous catastrophe.”
He accused Moscow of attempting to “weaponise” refugee flows, as the UN reported that 1.2 million Ukrainians had crossed into other countries, 200,000 of them in the past 24 hours.
Nato rejected Ukraine’s pleas to establish a no-fly zone, saying that its members were against action that could risk a wider war with Russia. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general, said that the days to come were “likely to be worse”, with Russian forces expected to bring in heavier weaponry and continue their attacks across Ukraine.
He described the invasion as “the worst military aggression in Europe for decades”.
The European Union wants Ukraine to become a member state “as soon as possible”, Maros Sefcovic, a commissioner, told journalists after a ministerial meeting following the parliament’s overwhelming vote backing the move. He added: “What is the most important now is to help Ukraine in the fight.”
What has happened at the nuclear plant in Ukraine?
Russian forces have shelled the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant at Energodar in southeastern Ukraine, the biggest in Europe, and have taken it over.
Could it cause a nuclear disaster?
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, warned: “If it blows up, it will be ten times larger than Chernobyl.” The International Atomic Energy Agency said the fire had not affected essential parts and that radiation levels have not increased. The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said “nuclear safety is now guaranteed”. Experts say the plant is different from Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan, the sites of disasters in 1986 and 2011. Tony Irwin, of the Australian National University, said: “Unlike Chernobyl, they have a containment around the reactor to stop any radioactive release. Unlike Fukushima, these reactors have separate water circuits to cool the reactor.”
Is Russia trying to starve Ukraine of electricity?
It appears that only one of the six reactors is operating. Claire Corkill, a nuclear expert at Sheffield University, said: “They’re shutting down the nuclear reactors and putting them into a safe state.” She speculated it may have been Russia’s intention to shut off a part of the supply. “If you want to target their supply, you attack a building close to the power plant and force operators to shut it down,” she said.
Is there still a risk?
The reactors have concrete domes that would help to protect them from artillery fire, but as Irwin said: “It’s not a good idea if you start shooting massive missiles at reactors.” President Zelensky said: “If there is an explosion, that’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops.”