Attack on Ukrainian nuclear plant triggers worldwide alarm

  • Gutted cars are shown following a night air raid Friday in the village of Bushiv, 40 kilometers west of Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

KYIV, Ukraine — 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 yet in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Firefighters put out the blaze, and no radiation was released, U.N. and Ukrainian officials said. Russian forces pressed on with their week-old offensive on multiple fronts, though they did not appear to gain significant ground in fighting Friday. The number of refugees fleeing the country eclipsed 1.2 million.

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With world condemnation mounting, the Kremlin cracked down on the flow of information at home, blocking Facebook, Twitter, the BBC and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America. And President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread so-called fake news, including anything that goes against the official government line on the war. CNN announced that it would stop broadcasting in Russia and Bloomberg temporarily suspended the work of its journalists there, saying they were assessing the situation.

While the vast Russian armored column threatening Kyiv remained stalled outside the capital, Putin’s military has launched hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites across 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 attack 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 the 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.”

But nuclear officials from Sweden to China said no radiation spikes had been reported, as did Grossi.

Authorities said Russian troops had taken control of the overall site but plant staff continued to run it. Only one reactor was operating, at 60% of capacity, 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.

In the U.S., Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the episode “underscores the recklessness with which the Russians have been perpetrating this unprovoked invasion.” At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said the fire broke out as a result of Russian shelling of the plant and accused Moscow of committing “an act of nuclear terrorism.”

Without producing evidence, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that a Ukrainian “sabotage group” had set the fire at Zaporizhzhia. The crisis 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.

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