Russian troops outside the city of Enerhodar are shelling the Zaporizhzhia power plant, Ukraine’s largest nuclear facility, and a fire has broken out, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian leaders warn the attacks are creating a “real threat of nuclear danger” at the power station, the largest plant of its kind in Europe.
“We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire,” Andriy Tuz, a spokesperson for the plant, said in a video posted on Telegram. “There is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe.”
If the shelling continues, it could cause a nuclear disaster 10 times worse than Chernobyl, warned Ukrainian Foreign Affairs minister Dmytro Kuleba on Twitter on Thursday.
“Fire has already broke out,” he said. “If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”
Elevated levels of radiation were detected near the plant, which supplies a quarter of Ukraine’s energy, an anonymous government official told The Associated Press.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Thursday it is in contact with Ukrainian authorities about the reported shelling.
The facility has six total reactors. At least one reactor, which is under renovation and non-operational, is on fire and contains nuclear fuel, according to a plant spokesperson.
Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said on Friday on his Telegram channel that the plant was on fire “as a result of continuous enemy shelling of buildings.”
He added that Russian tanks had entered the town of 50,000, and their attacks had resulted in casualties.
Russian troops have been attacking the plant with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as shooting at Ukrainian firefighters, according to US Senator Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.
“Like most nuke plants the one in Ukraine under attack is built to withstand a direct hit from an airplane crash,” the Florida Senator wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The problem is a loss of power or a shell draining the pools used to store spent fuel. If that fuel isn’t cooled it can melt and release large amounts of radioactivity.”
Until the combat stops, firefighters won’t be able to put out the blazes at the plant, a Ukrainian atomic energy ministry official told Russia’s RIA news agency.
“Firefighters can’t start extinguishing the fire at the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant - they are being fired on at point-blank range. There is already a hit on the first power unit,” the ministry told RIA.
Ahead of the attack on the plant, Ukrainians, including civilians, formed a barrier between the plant and the advancing Russian army, and asked the IAEA to create a 30 km safe zone around Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants.
“Russian generals – change your minds! Do not create conditions for the new Chernobyl! Radiation knows no nationalities, one does not spare anyone! Go around the Energodar and Zaporizhzhya,” wrote interior ministry official Anton Gerashchenko on Facebook.
Energoatom, the Ukrainian state enterprise that runs the country’s nuclear power stations, said on Thursday the Russian military was “openly terrorizing employees of the station and residents of its satellite city Energodar.”
The assault on Zaporizhzhia comes after Russian troops captured the defunct Chernobyl plant, home to an infamous 1986 nuclear disaster.
The timing of the attacks suggests ongoing attempts between Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a peace deal have a long way to go.
On Thursday, officials from both countries met for talks near the Ukraine-Belarus border.
European officials have also warned that Mr Putin shows no signs of slowing down.
Russian state media reported that Mr Putin told the French leader his goals in Ukraine “will be fulfilled in any case.”
“Attempts to gain time by dragging negotiations will only lead to additional requirements for Kyiv in our negotiating position,” a Russian readout of the call reported.
Meanwhile, French officials say Mr Macron told the Russian president, “Your country will pay dearly because it will end up as an isolated country, weakened and under sanctions for a very long time.”
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