World condemns ‘reckless’ Russian attack on Ukraine power station that only just avoided ‘nuclear catastrophe’

The attack reflected a ‘dangerous new escalation’ in Russia’s invasion, members of UN Security Council say

Chris Stevenson
Friday 04 March 2022 20:40
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US Ambassador to the US Linda Thomas-Greenfield says world averted ‘nuclear disaster’

Russia has been condemned for targeting Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in the latest escalation of its war against Ukraine – with the US warning that the world had only “narrowly avoided catastrophe”.

As shells hit the area early on Friday, a blaze broke out in a training building at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. It was later extinguished. Officials said that no release of radiation had been reported, however there is concern for workers at the plant, who are now operating under battlefield conditions and out of reach of direct communication with Ukrainian officials.

Management at the power plant in Enerhodar, in the country’s southeast, is now working at “gunpoint”, the company that runs the power plant said.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that the attack reflected a “dangerous new escalation” in Russia’s invasion, warning that “imminent danger” persisted, and demanded assurances from Moscow that such an assault would not happen again.

“The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night ... Russia’s attack ... put Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at grave risk. It was incredibly reckless and dangerous. And it threatened the safety of civilians across Russia, Ukraine and Europe,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said. Earlier in the day, an emotional Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, had said he feared an explosion that would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe.”

On Twitter, Ukraine, along with the US embassy in Kyiv, described the attack as a war crime, but the US state department was later said to have distanced itself from this allegation, instructing its other embassies not to retweet the claim.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Raphael Grossi, said that the plant was undamaged by what he believed had been a Russian projectile. Only one of its six reactors was said to have been working at the time of the bombardment, at around 60 per cent of capacity.

The Ukrainian State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate said in a statement on its Facebook page: “Changes in the radiation state for the current time have not been recorded.” However, it warned that any “loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment” that could “exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant”.

The UK ambassador to the United Nations, Barbara Woodward, told the Security Council: “It must not happen again. Even in the midst of an illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia must keep fighting away from, and protect the safety and security of, nuclear sites.” French president Emmanuel Macron said late on Friday that France and its partners would propose a set of concrete measures to boost the safety and security of Ukraine’s five main nuclear sites, based on IAEA criteria, given the concern over the risk of possible fighting around other facilities.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said that “thousands” of people near the site would be in danger if operations there were disturbed, telling the meeting of the Security Council that residents were “currently unable to evacuate the area near the plant due to ongoing shelling and fighting”.

Mr Kyslytsya also accused Russia of lying about the attack, after Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the power plant and surrounding territory were being “guarded” by Russian troops. Mr Nebenzya dismissed the west’s outcry over the attack on the power plant, and said the emergency Security Council meeting was another attempt by Ukrainian authorities to create “artificial hysteria”.

Meanwhile, a vast Russian armoured column was continuing to move slowly towards the capital, Kyiv, but stalled outside it. Three of Russia’s army commanders have been killed after moving towards the front line in an apparent attempt to restore momentum to the invasion, according to western sources.

The deputy commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army, Maj Gen Andrei Sukhovetsky, whose death from a probable sniper bullet was announced on Thursday, is the highest-ranking member of the invasion force to have lost his life in the nine days of fighting so far. Now western officials have confirmed that a divisional commander and a regimental commander have also been killed, in what was described as a “surprising” development resulting from a breakdown in command and control systems.

Elsewhere, the Russian military have continued their artillery offensive against cities across the country, including Mariupol, Borodyanka and Kharkiv, with the secretary general of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, warning: “The days to come are likely to be worse.” Seven people were killed, including two children, after a Russian airstrike hit the village of Markhalivka, around 6 miles from the southwestern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, on Friday.

G7 foreign ministers said they were “deeply concerned” about the humanitarian cost of “Russia’s continuing strikes” against Ukraine’s civilian population.

“We re-emphasise that indiscriminate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law. We will hold accountable those responsible for war crimes, including indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians,” they said in a joint statement released by the US State Department. Mr Stoltenberg had earlier said there was evidence of the use of cluster bombs and “other types of weapons which would be in violation of international law”.

In the wake of the attack on the power plant and the shelling across the country, President Zelensky again appealed to the west to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, also called on the west to close the skies over the country’s nuclear plants, warning in a statement that “the security of the whole world is at stake”.

However, Mr Stoltenberg ruled out that possibility, citing the risk of opening up a much wider conflict. He explained that to enforce a no-fly zone, Nato planes would have to shoot down Russian aircraft. “We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe,” he said.

Meanwhile, Downing Street has said that Boris Johnson does not back calls for the assassination of Putin, but wants to see the Russian president held to account for his actions. A No 10 spokesperson said the prime minister does not agree with US senator Lindsey Graham, who has called for “somebody in Russia” to assassinate the president in order to bring the invasion of Ukraine to an end. Mr Johnson thinks Mr Putin and his associates should instead be tried by an international court for the war crimes they have presided over in Ukraine, said the spokesperson.

The comments came as former prime minister Gordon Brown called for the creation of a special tribunal to try those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, modelled on the Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis after the Second World War. And the Metropolitan Police announced that officers from its war crimes team were gathering evidence in support of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into alleged atrocities in Ukraine, which was announced on Wednesday.

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