Russian forces seize huge Ukrainian nuclear plant, fire put out

  • Heavy fighting in the area around a huge nuclear plant
  • No signs of high radiation – US Energy Sec
  • US and UK hit oligarchs with more sanctions

Lviv, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces have taken control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Ukrainian authorities said on Friday, after a building in the complex caught fire during heavy fighting with Ukrainian defenders.

Fears of a possible nuclear catastrophe at the Zaporizhia plant sent an alarm in the capitals of the world, before the authorities announced that the fire in a building identified as a training center had been extinguished.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said there was no indication of high radiation levels at the plant, which provides more than a fifth of Ukraine’s total electricity generation.

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An official at the state corporation that operates four nuclear plants in Ukraine said there was no further fighting, the fire had been extinguished and Zaporizhzhya was operating normally.

“(Nuclear power plant) personnel are present at their workplaces to provide for the normal operation of the plant.”

Earlier, video from the factory, verified by Reuters, showed a building on fire and a hail of incoming shells, before a large ball of wax lit the sky, exploding next to a parking lot and billowing smoke across the complex.

“Europeans, please wake up. Tell the politicians that Russian forces are shooting at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine,” Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video speech.

Zelensky said Russian tanks fired on nuclear reactor plants although there was no evidence that they had been hit.

The mayor of the nearby town of Energodar, about 550 km southeast of Kyiv, said heavy fighting and “the constant bombardment of the enemy” had caused casualties in the area, without giving details.

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Thousands of people are believed to have been killed or injured and more than a million refugees have fled Ukraine since February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the biggest attack on a European country since World War II.

Early reports of the fire and fighting at the power plant sent financial markets up in Asia, with stocks plummeting and oil prices rising even more.

“Markets are concerned about the nuclear fallout. The risk is that there is miscalculation or an overreaction and that the war is prolonged,” said Vasu Menon, executive director of investment strategy at OCBC Bank.

Russia had already seized the defunct Chernobyl plant north of Kyiv, which dumped radioactive waste across much of Europe when it melted in 1986. The Zaporizhzhya plant is a different and safer kind, analysts said.

Earlier, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Zelensky to get an update on the situation at the plant.

“President Biden joined President Zelensky in urging Russia to cease its military activities in the region and allow firefighters and paramedics access to the site,” the White House said.

Johnson said Russian forces should end their offensive immediately and agreed with Zelensky that a ceasefire was crucial.

Downing Street said: “The Prime Minister has said that the reckless actions of President Putin can now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe.”

Japan’s top government spokesperson described the Russian attack on the plant as “barbaric and unacceptable,” and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said his government called on “all parties to exercise restraint, avoid escalation and ensure the safety of related nuclear facilities.”

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The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation at the nuclear plant and that Ukrainian authorities had assured the International Atomic Energy Agency that “essential” equipment had not been affected.

The escalation of protests and sanctions

Russia and Ukraine negotiators agreed on Thursday on the need for humanitarian corridors to help civilians flee and to get medicine and food to areas where fighting has been heaviest.

Adviser to the Ukrainian president, Mykhailo Podolyak, said a temporary cessation of hostilities in selected locations was also possible.

Podolak was quoted by the state news agency Belta as saying that negotiators will meet again next week.

Only one Ukrainian city, the southern port of Kherson, has fallen to Russian forces since the invasion began on February 24, but Russian forces continue to besiege and attack other cities.

Britain said in an intelligence update on Friday that the southeastern port city of Mariupol had surrounded Russian forces and had come under intense attacks.

“Maripol is still under Ukrainian control, but it is likely to be surrounded by Russian forces,” the Defense Ministry said. “The city’s civilian infrastructure has been subjected to intense Russian strikes,” he added.

The northeastern city of Kharkiv has been under attack since the beginning of the invasion, but human rights defenders are still holding out in the heavily bombed city. Putin described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a “special operation” that aims not to occupy territory but to overthrow the democratically elected government, destroy the military capabilities of its neighbors and arrest what it considers dangerous nationalists.

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Russia denied targeting civilians. The United Nations Human Rights Office said Thursday it had confirmed 249 civilians were killed and 553 wounded during the first week of the conflict.

While no major attack on Kyiv was launched, the capital was bombed, and Russian forces unleashed devastating firepower to break resistance in the remote town of Borodinka.

In Washington, a US defense official said Russian forces were still 25 km (25 miles) from downtown Kyiv.

The United States and Britain announced sanctions against more Russian oligarchs on Thursday, following the European Union’s measures, as they escalated pressure on the Kremlin.

More companies including Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google, footwear giant Nike and Swedish furniture maker IKEA have closed or scaled back their operations in Russia as trade and supply restrictions have added to political pressure. Read more

Russian human rights activist and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has called on Western countries to remove Russia from the global police agency Interpol, and to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“Russia must be returned to the stone age to ensure that the oil and gas industry and any other sensitive industries essential to the survival of the regime cannot function without Western technological support,” Kasparov said.

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Additional reporting by Pavel Politiuk, Natalia Zenets and Aleksandr Vasovich in Ukraine, David Leungren in Ottawa and other Reuters offices; Written by Costas Pettas and Lincoln Fest; Editing by Stephen Coates and Simon Cameron Moore

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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