Russian troops Friday seized the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe after a middle-of-the-night attack that set it on fire and briefly raised worldwide fears of a catastrophe in the most chilling turn in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine yet.
Firefighters put out the blaze, and no radiation was released, U.N. and Ukrainian officials said, as Russian forces pressed on with their week-old offensive on multiple fronts and the number of refugees fleeing the country topped 1.2 million.
While the vast Russian armored column threatening Kyiv remained stalled outside the capital, President Vladimir Putin’s military has launched hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites around the country, and made significant gains on the ground in the south in an apparent bid to cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea.
In the atttack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar, the chief of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said a Russian “projectile” hit a training center, not any of its six reactors.
The attack triggered global alarm and fear of a catastrophe that could dwarf the world’s worst nuclear disaster, at Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986. In an emotional nighttime speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he feared an explosion that would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
Authorities said that Russian troops had taken control of the overall site but that the plant staff continued to run it. Only one reactor was operating, Grossi said in the aftermath of the attack.
Two people were injured in the fire, Grossi said. Ukraine’s state nuclear plant operator Enerhoatom said three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two wounded.
The crisis at Zaporizhzhia unfolded after Grossi earlier in the week expressed grave concern that the fighting could cause accidental damage to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors at four plants around the country.
Nuclear safety expert Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington said the presence of reactors in the war zone adds a new and highly dangerous dimension to the crisis in Ukraine.
“These plants are now in a situation that few people ever seriously contemplated when they were originally built, and that is the potential that they would be in the middle of a war zone,” he said. “No nuclear plant has been designed to withstand a potential threat of a full-scale military attack, and the plants in Ukraine are no exception.”
In the wake of the attack, Zelenskyy appealed again to the West to enforce a no-fly zone over his country. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg ruled out that possibility, citing the risk of a much wider war in Europe. He said 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,” Stoltenberg said.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting Friday on the plant attack.
Russian forces, meanwhile, pressed their offensive in the southern part of the country. Severing Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov would deal a severe blow to its economy and could worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.
A round of talks between Russia and Ukraine yielded a tentative agreement Thursday to set up safe corridors to evacuate citizens and deliver food and medicine. But the necessary details still had to be worked out.
The U.N. human rights office said 331 civilians had been confirmed killed in the invasion but that the true number is probably much higher.
In Romania, one newly arrived refugee, Anton Kostyuchyk, struggled to hold back tears as he recounted leaving everything behind in Kyiv and sleeping in churches with his wife and three children during their journey out.
“I’m leaving my home, my country. I was born there, and I lived there,” he said. “And what now?”
The plant fire was the second time since the invasion began that concerns about a potential nuclear accident arose, following a battle at the heavily contaminated site of the now-decommissioned Chernobyl plant.
Facing worldwide indignation, Russia sought to deflect blame and crack down on dissent at home.
Without producing evidence, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that a Ukrainian “sabotage group” had set the fire at Zaporozhizhia.
Russia’s parliament unanimously approved a draft law making it a crime to intentionally spread what is deemed to be fake news. Russians could get up to 15 years in prison for disseminating information that goes against the official government line on the war.
Authorities also raided the offices of Russian human rights organizations.
Inside Ukraine, frequent shelling could be heard in the center of Kyiv, though more distant than in recent days, with loud thudding every 10 minutes resonating over the rooftops.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said battles involving airstrikes and artillery continued northwest of Kyiv, and the northeastern cities of Kharkiv and Okhtyrka came under heavy fire.
He said Ukrainian forces were still holding the northern city of Chernihiv and had prevented Russian efforts to take the important southern city of Mykolaiv. Ukrainian artillery also defended Odesa from repeated attempts by Russian ships to fire on the Black Sea port, Arestovic said. Odesa is Ukraine’s biggest port city and home to a large naval base.
The Ukrainian Navy scuttled its flagship at the shipyard where it was undergoing repairs to keep the frigate from being seized by the Russians, authorities said.
Another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, was “partially under siege,” and Ukrainian forces were pushing back efforts to surround the city, Arestovich said.
“The humanitarian situation is tense,” he said, adding that Ukrainian authorities were in talks with Russian representatives and international organizations to set up a humanitarian corridor to evacuate residents and supply food.
Battles have knocked out the city’s electricity, heat and water systems, as well as most phone service, officials said.
Amid the warfare, there were occasional signs of hope.
As explosions sounded on the fringes of Kyiv, Dmytro Shybalov and Anna Panasyk smiled and blushed at the civil registry office where they married Friday. They fell in love in 2015 in Donetsk amid the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces that was a precursor to the countrywide war.
“It’s 2022 and the situation hasn’t changed,” Shybalov said. “It’s scary to think what will happen when our children will be born.”