Russia has been condemned for targeting Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in the latest escalation of the war – with the US warning the world had only “narrowly avoided catastrophe”.
As shells hit the area early on Friday, a blaze broke out in a training building of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant before the blaze was later extinguished. Officials said that no release of radiation was reported, however, there is concern for workers at the plant who are now operating under battlefield conditions out of direct communication reach of Ukrainian officials.
Management at the power plant in Enerhodar, in the country’s southeast, is now working at “gunpoint” the company that runs the station said.
The attack reflected a “dangerous new escalation” in Russia’s invasion, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, warning that “imminent danger” persisted and demanding assurances from Moscow that such an assault will not happen again.
“The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night… Russia’s attack… put Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at serious risk. It was incredibly reckless and dangerous. And it threatened the safety of civilians across Russia, Ukraine and Europe,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield added. Earlier in the day, an emotional Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he feared an explosion that would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
Ukraine and the US embassy in Kyiv – via a tweet – had called the attack on a war crime, but the US state department was later said to have distanced itself from the allegation, instructing its other embassies not to retweet the claim.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, Raphael Grossi, said the plant was undamaged from what he believed was a Russian projectile. Only one of its six reactors was working, at around 60 per cent of capacity.
The Ukrainian state inspectorate for nuclear regulation said in a statement on its Facebook page: “Changes in the radiation state for the current time have not been recorded”. However, it warned that any “loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment” that could “exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants”.
UK ambassador to the United Nations Barbara Woodward told the Security Council: “It must not happen again. Even in the midst of an illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia must keep fighting away from and protect the safety and security of nuclear sites.” French President Emmanuel Macron said late on Friday that France and its partners will propose a set of concrete measures to increase the safety and security of Ukraine’s five main nuclear sites, based on IAEA criteria, with concern over the risk of possible fighting around other facilities. .
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said that “thousands” of people near the site would be in danger if operations there are disturbed, telling the meeting of the Security Council that residents are “currently unable to evacuate the area near the plant due to ongoing shelling and fighting”.
Kyslytsya also accused Russia of lying about the attack after the Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said that the power plant and surrounding territory are being “guarded” by Russian troops. Nebenzya dismissed Western uproar over the nuclear power plant and called the emergency Security Council meeting another attempt by Ukrainian authorities to create “artificial hysteria”.
Meanwhile, a vast Russian armored column threatening Kyiv moving slowly, but stalled outside the capital, Kyiv. Three commanders in Russia’s army have been killed after moving up towards the frontline in an apparent attempt to restore momentum to the invasion of Ukraine, according to Western sources.
The deputy commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army, Maj Gen Andrei Sukhovetsky, whose death from a probable sniper bullet was revealed on Thursday, is the highest-ranking member of the invasion force to lose his life after nine days of fighting. Now Western officials have confirmed that a divisional commander and a regimental commander have also been killed, in what was described as a “surprising” development resulting from a breakdown in command and control systems.
Elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military have continued their artillery offensive against cities across the country, including Mariupol, Borodyanka and Kharkiv, with the Nato chief Stoltenberg saying: “The days to come, are likely to be worse.” Seven people were killed, including two children, after a Russian airstrike hit the village of Markhalivka, around 6 miles from the southwestern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, on Friday.
G7 foreign ministers said they were “deeply concerned” with the humanitarian toll from “Russia’s continuing strikes” against Ukraine’s civilian population and hold accountable those responsible for war crimes.
“We reemphasize that indiscriminate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law. We will hold accountable those responsible for war crimes, including indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians,” G7 foreign ministers said in a joint statement released by the US State Department. Stoltenberg had earlier said there was evidence of the use of cluster bombs and “other types of weapons which would be in violation of international law”.
In the wake of the nuclear attack and the shelling across the country, Ukrainian President Zelensky appealed again to the West to enforce a no-fly zone over his country. Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, also called on the West to close the skies over the country’s nuclear plants – warning in a statement that “the security of the whole world is at stake.”
However, 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.
It comes as Boris Johnson does not back calls for the assassination of Putin, but wants to see the Russian president held to account in front of an international court, Downing Street has said. A No 10 spokesperson said the prime minister does not agree with US Senator Lindsey Graham, who has called for ‘somebody in Russia’ to assassinate the president in order to bring the invasion of Ukraine to an end. Mr Johnson thinks Putin and his associates should instead be tried by an international court for the war crimes they have ordered in Ukraine, the spokesperson said.
The comments came as former prime minister Gordon Brown called for the creation of a special tribunal to try those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, modeled on the Nuremburg trials of prominent Nazis after the Second World War. And the Metropolitan Police announced that officers from its war crimes team are gathering evidence in support of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into alleged atrocities in Ukraine, announced on Wednesday.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.