Russian forces occupied the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant Friday after an attack that ignited a fire at the complex, Ukraine said, raising the stakes in President Vladimir Putin’s invasion as his troops pounded cities across the country.
Russian shelling had caused a blaze at a training complex in the Zaporizhzhia plant in the east of the country overnight, Ukrainian officials said, but emergency services extinguished it and there were no casualties. Ukraine told the International Atomic Energy Agency the incident had “not affected ‘essential’ equipment,” and there had been no change reported in radiation levels.
Russia already controls Ukraine’s defunct Chernobyl nuclear facility, site of a major disaster in 1986, and its forces had been closing in on Zaporizhzhia for days, with the IAEA voicing mounting concerns over the safety of the country’s nuclear installations as fighting escalated.
President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as reports of the attack emerged and the leaders called on Russia “to cease its military activities in the area,” according to a White House statement.
“Europe must wake up,” Zelenskiy said in a video message early Friday, adding that he also spoke with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other leaders.
“If there is an explosion, it is the end of Europe,” Zelenskiy added. “Only urgent Europe actions can stop Russian troops.”
Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told Bloomberg Television early Friday that a missile had hit the nuclear plant’s unit no. 1, and the Ukraine government was seeking more clarity on the damage. Reactors are “being protected by robust containment structures” and are being safely shut down, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement, adding her department had activated its nuclear incident response team.
In the days leading up to the incident, the international nuclear watchdog had considered a 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding all of Ukraine’s reactors, acknowledging the unprecedented nature of combat taking place in and around the facilities. There’s never before been a military attack on an operating nuclear plant, analysts said.
The head of Ukraine’s nuclear operator has said the plant’s reactors, which are protected with thick metal and cement shells, are designed to withstand an aircraft crash. Nuclear plants are equipped with emergency response systems that should shut the reactors once they sense the vibrations from an attack, and have backup power systems in the case of a blackout.
Knee-jerk losses in equity markets moderated as traders assessed the severity of the situation at the facility. S&P 500 Index futures were trading 0.9% lower, after earlier falling 1.7%. Gold pared earlier gains as demand for haven assets eased.
The fact that the fire had posed no immediate risk to reactors “does not in any way excuse the Russian troops for firing on this nuclear power plant facility and endangering not only Ukraine and the surrounding countries, but really Russia itself should there be some kind of explosion,” Rose Gottemoeller, a former NATO deputy secretary general, told Bloomberg Television in an interview. “It’s one of those fratricidal situations that nobody, not even Vladimir Putin, should wish for.”
The Zaporizhzhia power plant in the city of Enerhodar is home to six Soviet-designed 950-megawatt reactors built between 1984 and 1995, with capacity of 5.7 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4 million homes. The site accounts for about 20% of the country’s electricity, according to its website.
While Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned of a disaster “10 times larger” than Chernobyl, analysts said that was unlikely. The nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia are of a different design and have been upgraded even since the Fukushima disaster.
“If there is no significant military damage to their multiple redundant safety systems, the reactors should remain in a safe stable state,” said Lake Barrett, a former official at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who was involved with the cleanup at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the US.