Russian forces on Friday attacked Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, setting part of Ukraine’s facility ablaze in an attack that the country’s leader labeled “nuclear terror” and could endanger the continent.
Vanir-exodus authorities said no immediate rise in radiation was detected and “essential” equipment was not affected by the fire, but it remained unclear what the invading forces were up to next.
President Volodymr Zelenskyy spoke with world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who called for an end to fighting at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.
Attack on nuclear power plant
Putin’s ‘reckless actions’
Johnson accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “reckless actions” that he said “could now directly jeopardize the security of all of Europe”.
The British leader will request an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in the coming hours, a statement from his office said.
Footage on a live feed from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant previously showed explosions illuminating the night sky and billowing plumes of smoke.
Zelenskyy angrily denounced the attack, saying in a video message: “No country other than Russia has ever fired at nuclear power plants.”
“This is the first time in our history. In the history of mankind. The terrorist state has now resorted to nuclear terror,” he added, calling for global aid.
“If there’s an explosion, that’s the end of everything. The end of Europe. This is the evacuation of Europe. Only immediate European action can stop Russian troops.”
Nuclear power plant secured
Despite the fears, after several hours of uncertainty, Ukrainian authorities said the site was secure.
“The director of the factory said nuclear safety is now guaranteed,” Oleksandr Starukh, head of the military administration of the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Facebook.
“According to those responsible for the factory, a training building and a laboratory were affected by the fire,” he added.
And the IAEA said it had been told by the Ukrainian regulator that “no change has been reported in radiation levels” at the site.
“Ukraine tells the IAEA that the fire at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant site has not affected ‘essential’ equipment as factory workers have taken mitigating measures,” the watchdog added in a tweet.
US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm also tweeted that “the plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures and reactors are safely shut down.”
‘Give me planes’
Russia has intensified attacks across the country during the nine days of conflict, with new reports of civilian casualties and devastating damage, particularly in southern areas near the first city to be fell by Moscow’s troops.
In a second round of talks held Thursday, Moscow agreed to a Ukrainian request for humanitarian corridors to allow terrified residents to flee, but there was no immediate clarity about how they would work, and there was no sign of any movement toward a ceasefire.
Zelenskyy called for direct talks with Putin, saying this was “the only way to stop this war”. But he also urged the West to ramp up military aid and “give me planes.”
Much of the international community has sided with Ukraine since Putin invaded, making Russia a global outcast in finance, diplomacy, sports and culture.
But the offensive has continued despite sanctioning international sanctions, and Putin said on Thursday that his invasion was “strictly on schedule and according to plan”.
The worst is yet to come
He said Russia was wiping out “neo-Nazis”, adding in television commentary that he will “never give up the (his) belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with Putin on Thursday, believes “the worst is yet to come,” an aide said.
As a long military column north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev appears to have ground to a halt, Russian troops have already captured Kherson, a Black Sea city of 290,000, after a three-day siege that left food and medicine out of the supply.
Russian forces are also putting pressure on the port city of Mariupol east of Kherson, which is without water or electricity in the dead of winter.
“They are trying to set up a blockade here, just like in Leningrad,” Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said, referring to the brutal Nazi siege of Russia’s second city, now renamed Saint Petersburg.
Attack on Chernihiv
In the northern city of Chernihiv, 33 people died on Thursday when Russian troops attacked residential areas, including schools and a high-rise apartment building.
And Ukrainian authorities said residential areas in the eastern city of Kharkiv had been shelled “all night” by indiscriminate shelling, which UN prosecutors are investigating as a possible war crime.
Many Ukrainians were digging, while volunteers in the industrial center of Dnipro made sandbags and collected bottles for Molotov cocktails.
In Lviv, others organized food and supplies to send to cities under attack and produced homemade anti-tank obstacles after watching YouTube tutorials.
‘Maybe it’s hell’
But for some, the worst had already arrived.
Oleg Rubak’s wife Katia, 29, was crushed in their childhood home in… Zhytomyrwest of Kiev, by a Russian missile strike.
“One moment I saw her go to the bedroom. A minute later there was nothing,” Rubak, 32, told AFP among the ruins in the bitter winter cold.
“I hope she’s in heaven and everything is perfect for her,” he said in tears.
Pointing to the mess, he said what was left was “not even a room, it’s…maybe it’s hell.”
The conflict has already resulted in more than a million refugees who have flocked to neighboring countries to be welcomed by volunteers who hand them water, food and medical treatment.
Refugees, media outages, sanctions
Both the EU and the United States said they would approve temporary protection for all refugees fleeing the war.
Fears of unleashing all-out war with nuclear-armed Russia have minimized Western aid to Ukraine, though a steady supply of weapons and intelligence continues.
The main lever used to pressure Russia globally has been sanctions, which have sent the ruble into freefall and forced the central bank to levy a 30% tax on the sale of hard currency after a run on moneylenders.
Putin’s invasion has prompted some Eastern European countries to lean even harder west, with both Georgia and Moldova applying for EU membership on Thursday.
In Russia, authorities have imposed a media blackout on the fighting and two liberal media groups said they are halting operations, another death knell for independent reporting in the country.
On Friday, Facebook and multiple media websites were partially inaccessible in Russia as authorities criticized the war out loud.
Dmitry Zaks and Dmytro Gorshkov © Agence France-Presse