Ukrainian nuclear power plant fire extinguished as Russian troops 'occupy' facility

Courtesy ZAPORIZHZHIA NPP
By Simone McCarthy, CNN

(CNN) -- Russian troops have occupied Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant, with managers working at "gunpoint" after a fire caused by their attack was extinguished, according to Ukrainian nuclear officials.

Countries around the world swiftly condemned the episode, with the US embassy in Ukraine warning an attack on a nuclear plant was a "war crime" and the United Nations Security Council convening an emergency meeting, according to diplomats.

In a statement Friday morning local time, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (SNRI) confirmed the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine was occupied by Russian military forces, but said officials remained in contact with plant management.

The power plant's six reactors remain intact, though the compartment auxiliary buildings for reactor unit 1 had been damaged, the SNRI said in its statement. Four of the remaining units are being cooled down while one unit is providing power, the statement said.

Separately, Ukraine's nuclear power operator, Energoatom, said the "administrative building and the checkpoint at the station are under occupiers' control." It said staff are working on the power units to ensure their stable operation.

"Unfortunately, there are dead and wounded among the Ukrainian defenders of the station," Energoatom added in a statement posted to Telegram.

Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, later reported that management were operating at "gunpoint." He said on Telegram that Russian forces "entered the territory of the nuclear power plant, took control of the personnel and management of the nuclear power plant."

"Today there is no connection, the station management works at invaders' gunpoint," Kotin continued.

"As for the staff, they were admitted in the morning to perform their duties. We do not currently have a direct connection to the station. We get information from the sources at the station."

Kotin warned that although the reactors are safe, further attacks could lead to "disaster."

He said: "Any shell that hits it, will lead to a nuclear disaster. This is the main danger. That is why after the shelling started, we started to put the power units in a safe mode: Two power units were disconnected from the grid, cooling the other two power units began to bring them to the safest state for the nuclear fuel."

Ukraine's State Emergency Services (SES) had earlier confirmed several dozen firefighters had extinguished a blaze that had started in a training building outside the main reactor complex, following shelling from Russian military forces.

Reports of the fire raised concern from world leaders and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- who called for a stop to fighting around the facility -- though the IAEA said Ukrainian authorities had reported background radiation levels were normal and the fire had not affected "essential" equipment

However the ongoing military operation around the site meant the situation was "very fragile," IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned.

In a Facebook post early Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian troops of committing a "terror attack" by intentionally firing at the power plant -- potentially risking the lives of millions.

"Russian tanks, equipped with thermal imagery, are shooting at the atomic blocks. They know what they are shooting at. They've been preparing for this (attack)," Zelensky said in the post, adding "our guys are keeping the atomic power station secure."

Zelensky also reiterated his appeal for a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine in his Facebook address. "An immediate closure of the skies over Ukraine is needed," he said.

The very fact Russia is launching attacks in the vicinity of Ukrainian nuclear plants is extremely dangerous, said Zelensky, while referencing the Chernobyl tragedy and its victims.

"There are 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine. If one of them blows, that's the end for everyone, that's the end of Europe. All of Europe will have to evacuate," he said.

"No country besides Russia has ever fired upon an atomic power plant's reactors. The first time, the first time in history," added Zelensky, urging European leaders to "wake up now" and stop Russian forces "before this becomes a nuclear disaster."

The plant, near the city of Enerhodar in southeastern Ukraine, had not sustained any critical damage in the attack, Andrii Tuz, a plant spokesman, told CNN on Friday, adding that when firefighters initially arrived they were blocked by Russian troops.

The US Embassy for Ukraine said "it is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant," according to a tweet on the embassy's Twitter feed on Friday. "Putin's shelling of Europe's largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further," it added.

Ukraine's Minister of Energy German Galushchenko had an "urgent" telephone conversation with his American counterpart Jennifer Granholm about the situation early Friday, according to a statement from Ukraine's Ministry of Energy.

Galushchenko said he had "demanded" the intervention of the IAEA in the security of Ukraine's nuclear power plants for several days, and called for "real intervention," including from NATO.

Granholm in a separate, earlier statement said the United States had activated its Nuclear Incident Response Team and was monitoring events in consultation with the Department of Defense, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the White House.

The IAEA on Friday said via Twitter that it had put its Incident and Emergency Centre "in full 24/7 response mode due to serious situation."

Speaking at a press conference in Vienna on Friday, the IAEA's Rossi said the safety of the reactors had not been affected.

"We are fortunate there has not been a release of radioactive material and the integrity of the reactors has not been compromised," he said. However, the operator and regulator have relayed to the IAEA that the situation on the ground is "extremely tense and challenging," he warned.

He explained that a Russian projectile had hit a building within the site, causing a localized fire, but none of the reactors were affected and radiation monitoring systems are fully functional.

Ukrainian staff are still at the helm of operations at the plant, but "effective control" of the site -- as well as of Chernobyl -- was in the hands of Russian forces, Grossi said, adding: "I hope the distinction is clear." He said that what happens next at Zaporizhzhia is "a situation that is very difficult to sustain, very fragile" while there is an active military operation and Russian forces in control. "This is unprecedented," he said. "Completely uncharted waters."

Both US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the situation in separate calls with Zelensky early Friday. According to statements from London and Washington, the leaders called for Russia to cease military activities and allow full access to emergency workers.

Following calls from world leaders, the UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting for 11.30 a.m. ET, according to three UN diplomats.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed his support for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. "Russian attacks in the direct vicinity of Ukraine's nuclear power plants can have catastrophic consequences. They must stop immediately," Borrell tweeted Friday.

"Shelling and resulting fire at [Zaporizhzhia] power plant can endanger the whole of Europe," he added.

France "strongly condemns" the episode, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Brussels on Friday. Le Drian also tweeted on Friday his full support for the IAEA's initiatives to monitor the situation of Ukrainian civilian nuclear facilities.

"The bombings last night that hit the Zaporizhzhia power plant are dangerous and unacceptable," he said in the tweet.


Plant came under attack


Reports of an attack on the facility emerged early Friday morning, with video of the scene showing bursts of gunfire apparently directed at the Zaporizhzhia facility before dawn.

"Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

A large number of Russian tanks and infantry "broke through the block-post" to Enerhodar, a few kilometers from the Zaporizhzhia power plant, Grossi said, according to a statement from the watchdog.

Flames could also be seen on video footage, though for some time it was unclear where the fire was or the scale of the threat posed to the facility.

The Russian government claimed Ukrainian "provocation" had led to a firefight around the nuclear power plant.

In a video briefing, Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces took the city of Enerhodar, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the territory adjacent to it on February 28. Konashenkov claimed the plant's technical staff continued regular work on the facilities, but that Ukrainian forces attempted a "monstrous provocation" in the early hours of Friday. Konashenkov also claimed the Ukrainians had set fire to the training building themselves.

CNN could not immediately verify any details of the firefight on the territory of the plant.

The Russian government has routinely and without evidence claimed the Ukrainian government is staging "provocations" to provoke a military response by Western governments.

The Zaporizhzhia plant contains six of the country's 15 nuclear energy reactors, according to the IAEA.

The facility accounts for one-fifth of the average annual electricity production in Ukraine, according to Energoatom.

Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said on his official Facebook page that the streets were quiet, adding: "Those who stayed in the shelter for the night, you can return home. However, due to the extremely tense situation nearby, we recommend you spending less time outside and stay at home."

Zaporizhzhia is located about 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of the city of Donetsk within one of the two pro-Moscow territories recognized as an independent state last month by Russia.


UN resolution addresses nuclear threat


On Thursday, IAEA member states passed a resolution calling on Russia to cease actions against nuclear facilities in Ukraine, diplomats said.

The resolution, which was led by Canada and Poland, and supported by 26 other countries, deplored Russia's "aggressive activity and attacks against nuclear sites in Ukraine, and seizing and taking control of nuclear facilities," the British ambassador in Vienna Corinne Kitsell said.

Only Russia and China voted against the resolution, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

It's the not first nuclear plant to come under threat from the Russian invasion. On the first day of the assault, Russian forces seized control of the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant reactor exploded in 1986, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union -- sparking a disaster that affected, directly or indirectly, 9 million people, due to radioactive materials released into the atmosphere.

The IAEA said in a statement that Ukraine had informed it staff held at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant since Russian military forces took control of the site a week ago were facing "psychological pressure and moral exhaustion."

In a joint appeal to the international nuclear watchdog, the Ukrainian government, regulatory authority and national operator said staff at the facility must be allowed to rest and rotate so that their crucial work can be carried out safely and securely.

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