The risk of a nuclear accident has grown to unimaginable limits after the Russian bombardment of some facilities of the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant, in the town of Energodar, in southeastern Ukraine, the largest in Europe, where three buildings burned early this morning. The Ukrainian authorities assure that the fire has been brought under control and that the levels of radioactivity are normal, but the plant’s director has said that “the reactors are in danger”. The alarm at an accident of incalculable dimensions that takes us back to the Chernobyl catastrophe has raised the tone of condemnation of many political leaders around the world.

The early hours of the morning have been especially hard for the residents of this locality in the face of the possibility of a terrible accident after the fire unleashed in the plant by the bombing of the Russian troops. Finally, the fire in one of its buildings was extinguished by firefighters this Friday at 06.20 a.m. after a few hours of uncertainty and the plant has been taken over by Russia. The Ukrainian State Emergency Service issued a reassuring message: radioactivity levels are within normal ranges, and clarified that the fire declared after the Russian attack affected a building outside the plant itself.

Before the fire was put out, the plant’s general director, Igor Murashov, noted that the safety of the nuclear power plant was compromised, according to his message broadcast by the Ukrainian Parliament on its Telegram account. “The risks are tremendous. The fighting continues. The reactors are in danger,” it warned.

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant

The Zaporoyia nuclear power plant was built between 1984 and 1995. It is considered the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world due to the energy production capacity and the power installed in its six reactors capable of producing 950MW. With a total output of 5,700MW, it is a strategic point in the advance of Russian troops, mainly because it provides electricity to approximately four million homes. In normal times, it produces one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity and almost half of the power generated by the country’s nuclear power facilities.

Russia last week seized the Chernobyl plant, a hundred kilometers north of Kiev. Zaporoyia, some analysts say, is safer than Chernobyl, where the biggest nuclear accident in history occurred in the 1980s in 1986. The chances of explosion, nuclear meltdown or radioactive release are low, said Tony Irwin, honorary associate professor at the Australian National University.

Ukrainian President Vlodomir Zelenski noted in a message that “for the first time (…) in the history of mankind, the terrorist state (Russia) has resorted to nuclear terrorism.” “We must stop the Russian Army immediately!” he stressed, recalling that Ukraine has fifteen nuclear power plants. “If there is an explosion, it will be the end of everything, the end of Europe,” he warned, and called for “immediate action” by the Old Continent.

Russian attack

The attack sparked a fire and declared a threat to the first unit of the facility, the city’s mayor, Dmitry Orlov, reported. “Threat to world security! As a result of continuous enemy shelling of buildings and units of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant is on fire,” he wrote on his Telegram account.

The Ukrainian national guard said that despite the fire the Russians continued firing in the direction of the plant. Nuclear power plant spokesman Andrii Tuz explained that emergency services had difficulty extinguishing the fire due to the proximity of the continuous Russian fire, according to UNIAN agency.

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Galuschenko denounced that Russian troops used tank, artillery and rocket fire against the nuclear power plant, “knowing the catastrophic consequences of their actions.” The Ukrainian State Emergency Service said that firefighting teams, which were denied access to the plant site by Russian troops on Thursday, established that the fire covered three floors of a training building.

Is there a radiation hazard?

The spokesman for the nuclear power plant, Andrii Tuz, explained that “the nuclear fuel is inside the atomic reactor. It has not yet been discharged. In addition, there is a nuclear fuel reloading and storage pool in the central hall that also contains uranium and nuclear fuel assemblies,” he said, emphasizing the danger of a breach of the sealed casing.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba said in a tweet that the measurement of radiation at the plant “is currently normal”, but noted that the Russian Army is shelling it “from all sides”. “If it explodes it (the catastrophe) will be ten times bigger than Chernobyl” in 1986, he warned. “The Russians must cease fire immediately, allow access to firefighters and create a safety zone,” he tweeted.

The United States assured that the nuclear power plant does not register “elevated levels of radiation.” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a message on her Twitter account that her government has not observed “elevated levels of radiation near the plant. The plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures and have been safely shut down,” she added.

He said, however, that Russian military operations near the plant are “reckless”. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, spoke with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and the regulator and operator about the “serious situation” created at the nuclear plant, the head of the institution said in a message posted on his Twitter account.

The regulator told the IAEA that “no changes in radiation levels have been reported at the plant site,” according to a message released on Twitter by the international body. Zelenksi’s message after attack: “Wake up now!”

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski called on Europe to “wake up now” to Russia’s “nuclear terrorism.” “Europe must wake up now! Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is on fire, nuclear units are being switched off right now,” he said in a video posted on the Telegram account of the presidential office.

He indicated that Russian tanks are equipped with thermographic cameras so that soldiers know where to shoot. Zelensky addressed all Ukrainians and Europeans who, he said, know the word “Chernobyl” perfectly well, referring to the largest nuclear catastrophe in history, which occurred on April 26, 1986. “Russia wants to repeat this and is repeating it, but six times more,” he said, referring to the number of units at the Energodar nuclear power plant in the Zaporiyia region.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart on Thursday urged Russia to “cease” “military activities” near the Zaporiyia power plant. The conversation between the two leaders took place after a fire was reported at that nuclear plant. According to a brief White House statement, Biden and Zelensky agreed to “urge Russia to cease “military activities in the area and allow emergency services access to the site.”

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