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Russian Military Action Causes Fire at Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant

Russian military forces fired upon buildings at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine early Friday morning, starting fires and launching a major security response to quell the blaze before further damage could occur.

The fire at a training facility at the power plant was extinguished approximately five hours after it began, and, as of Security Management’s press time, there had been no release of radioactive material. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Russian forces have control of the plant. Safety systems of the plant’s reactors were not affected, the IAEA said in a statement.

“Ukrainian counterparts informed the IAEA that a projectile overnight had hit a training building in the vicinity of one of the plant’s reactor units, causing a localized fire that was later extinguished,” according to the IAEA, which added that radiation monitoring systems at the site are fully functional.

“However, the operator has reported that the situation remains very challenging and therefore it has not yet been possible to access the whole site to assess that all safety systems are fully functional,” the IAEA said.

In a UN Security Council emergency meeting on the attack on Friday, Rosemary DiCarlo, UN undersecretary general for political and peacebuilding affairs, called military activity near nuclear power plants “irresponsible.” She said everything must be done to ensure the safe and secure operation of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

“What we are witnessing in Ukraine today is inconsistent with the UN charter,” she added. “The fighting in Ukraine must stop. And it must stop now.”

The IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) has been put into full response mode to respond, which will be “manned around the clock” to share updates on the situation.

“I’m extremely concerned about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and what happened there during the night,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. “Firing shells in the area of a nuclear power plant violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe at all time.”

Zaporizhzhia is Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant, with six of the 15 nuclear reactors normally responsible for supplying power to Ukraine. At the time of the fire, just one of Zaporizhia’s reactors was producing electricity and the plant was operating at about 60 percent of its total capacity, according to the World Nuclear Association. 

Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two were wounded during the attack, the Kyiv Independent reported. The plant is near Enerhodar, and Mayor Dmytro Orlov said it was safe for people to return to their homes on Friday following the attack. The city’s heating infrastructure, however, has been damaged. 

“Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom [Ukraine’s nuclear authority], told the media before the attack that Russia’s attempts to attack Enerhodar is a violation of the convention on nuclear safety,” according to the Kyiv Independent. “He added that as of March 3, Russian forces caused Hr 18 billion in economic damage to Energoatom.”

The threat of a nuclear disaster has been top of mind after Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl site—the location of the worst nuclear disaster in history. The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) said that has maintained communications with personnel at Chernobyl—despite the takeover—and that their duties were being carried out. However, on Thursday, the SNIRU said that power from one of Chernobyl’s offsite power transmission lines that supplies electricity to the site was lost.

“The power line does not provide power to safety-related equipment, but the loss of power has created difficulties in carrying out routine maintenance and repair of some equipment,” the World Nuclear Association said.

The more immediate danger, however, comes from Ukraine’s active nuclear power plants, according to James M. Acton, who holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

“Chernobyl is inside a large exclusion zone, and the uninhabited space would mitigate the consequences of a second nuclear accident there,” Acton wrote. “Ukraine’s other reactors are not similarly isolated. Moreover, much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl. To put it simply, nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones.”

IAEA Director General Grossi said two other sites where radioactive materials are present, waste-disposal facilities in Kharkiv and Kyiv—had been hit but did not cause the release of radioactive material. Grossi echoed Acton’s concerns in a statement to the media earlier this week.

“One of the unique features of this situation is that this is an ongoing military conflict taking place in a country with a vast nuclear program,” Grossi said. “There is a lot of nuclear material present….You could have a situation where you have low-level waste, a release of radioactive material. What we have to ensure is that these things don’t happen.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who remains in Kyiv, said on Twitter that he had spoken to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about the attack on Zaporizhzhia by the Russians, calling it “nuclear terrorism. Preventing it is our common task.” 

In a news briefing covered by the Washington Post, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia was “taking every measure” to safely control Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl. She also accused Ukraine of “intentionally destroying” its infrastructure.

During the past week, Russia has increased its shelling and attacks on Ukrainian cities causing widespread damage and rising concern about the impact on Ukraine’s infrastructure. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday morning that the civilian death toll is mounting and that there was evidence of cluster bombs and “other types of weapons which would be in violation of international law,” The Guardian reported. 

“The days to come, are likely to be worse,” Stoltenberg said. “With more death, more suffering, and more destruction as the Russian armed forces bring in heavier weaponry and continue their attacks across the country.”

The UN Sustainable Development Group has called for measures to protect civilian lives and infrastructure in Ukraine. The group said in a statement from Osnat Lubrani, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, that it had already stepped up efforts to reach 1.5 million vulnerable people in Ukraine affected by the war in the eastern part of the country. 

“Protection of civilian lives and infrastructure is essential for their survival,” Lubrani added. “We will now expand those programmes, and establish new operations wherever they are needed, across the country.”

Russia and Ukraine have agreed to cease-fires along humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to escape the violence. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians are sheltering in subway stations and basements acting as makeshift bomb shelters. At least 1.2 million people have fled the country since the fighting began, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Most evacuees have fled to Poland (650,000), with 145,000 fleeing to Hungary, 103,000 going to Moldova, and more than 90,000 sheltering in Solvakia, the Associated Press reports.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia are expected to continue next week, but Russian forces continue to surround and attack Ukrainian cities—including the port city of Mariupol and Mykolaiv. 

“Russia is seeking to enable separatist forces it supports in Crimea, the southern peninsula Russia annexed in 2014, to connect by land with forces it supports in Ukraine’s east, said Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine Forum group at Chatham House, a policy institute in London,” in an interview with The New York Times. “She said Russia’s invading units are thus also attacking the port city of Mariupol.” 

This is a rapidly developing situation. For breaking news updates, follow live reports from the Associated Press, The BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

For information on the latest sanctions against Russia, visit the U.S. Department of Treasury and the European Council.

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