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Fire Breaks out at Europe’s Largest Nuclear Power Plant after Shelling, Officials Say

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Russian forces pressed their attack on a crucial energy-producing city by shelling Europe’s largest nuclear plant early Friday, officials said, sparking a fire and raising fears that radiation could leak from the damaged power station.

Plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television that shells were falling directly on the Zaporizhzhia plant in the city of Enerhodar and had set fire to one of the facility’s six reactors. That reactor is under renovation and not operating, but there is nuclear fuel inside, he said.

The world’s leading nuclear authorities were concerned — but not panicked — about the damage to the power station. The International Atomic Energy Agency tweeted that there has been “no change reported in radiation levels” at the site, which provides about 25% of Ukraine’s power generation. It also called for a “halt of use of force” and warned of “severe danger if reactors hit.”

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted that the department “activated its Nuclear Incident Response Team” and is monitoring the situation. She reiterated that there is no detected elevation in radiation near the plant, and that “the plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures and reactors are being safely shut down.”

“Russian military operations near the plant are reckless and must cease,” Granholm wrote.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian tanks, which have thermal imagers “so they know what they’re shooting at,” are aiming for the plant.

“We are issuing a warning, no country has ever shot at nuclear blocks except for Russia,” he said in a video address. “First time ever. For the first time ever in our history, in the history of human kind, the terrorist country has reverted to nuclear terror. Russian propaganda had warned in the past to cover the world in nuclear ash. Now this isn’t just a warning, this is real.”

“Only immediate action can stop the Russian troops,” Zelensky said. “Do not let Europe die in the nuclear catastrophe.”

Meanwhile, back at the plant, Tuz said firefighters cannot get near the flames because they are being shot at. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a plea to the Russians to stop the assault and allow fire teams inside.

“We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire,” Tuz said in a video statement. “There is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe.”

In a statement Thursday night, the White House said that President Biden had spoken with Zelensky about the incident. “President Biden joined President Zelenskyy in urging Russia to cease its military activities in the area and allow firefighters and emergency responders to access the site,” it said.

Mr. Biden also spoke with the U.S. under secretary for nuclear security of the U.S. Department of Energy and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration on Thursday night, and will continue to be briefed on the situation, the statement said.

U.K. officials confirmed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Zelensky about the nuclear power plant incident overnight Thursday, and that the prime minister would seek an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting “in the coming hours.”

The statement added that “both leaders agreed a ceasefire was crucial.”

The attack renewed fears that the invasion could result in damage to one of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors and trigger another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital.

The plant’s reactor is a different type than the one used at Chernobyl, and there should be little risk if the containment vessel is not damaged and outside power can be restored, said Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council and former special adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

The mayor of Enerhodar said earlier that Ukrainian forces were battling Russian troops on the city’s outskirts. Video showed flames and black smoke rising above the city of more than 50,000, with people streaming past wrecked cars, just a day after the U.N. atomic watchdog agency expressed grave concern that the fighting could cause accidental damage to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors.

The Ukrainian state atomic energy company reported that a Russian military column was heading toward the nuclear plant. Loud shots and rocket fire were heard late Thursday.

“Many young men in athletic clothes and armed with Kalashnikovs have come into the city. They are breaking down doors and trying to get into the apartments of local residents,” the statement from Energoatom said.

Later, a live streamed security camera linked from the homepage of the Zaporizhzhia plant showed what appeared to be armored vehicles rolling into the facility’s parking lot and shining spotlights on the building where the camera was mounted.

There were then what appeared to be bright muzzle flashes from vehicles, followed by nearly simultaneous explosions in the surrounding buildings. Smoke then rose into the frame and drifted away.

The fighting at Enerhodar came as another round of talks between the two sides yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors inside Ukraine to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on the West to close the skies over the country’s nuclear plants as fighting intensified. “It is a question of the security of the whole world!” he said in a statement.

The U.S. and NATO allies have ruled out creating a no-fly zone since the move would pit Russian and Western military forces against each other.

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