Ukraine accused the Kremlin of “nuclear terror” on Friday after Europe’s largest atomic power plant was attacked and taken over by invading forces, sparking Western horror at the threat of Russia’s war contaminating all of Europe.
Blasts lit up the night sky as the plant at Zaporizhzhia came under shell fire, while Russian forces advanced in southern Ukraine and continued their sometimes indiscriminate bombardment of several cities elsewhere.
Ukrainian firefighters said they were prevented from accessing the site initially before the attack was paused and they were able to douse a blaze at a training facility on the site.
The six reactors at Zaporizhzhia, which can power enough energy for four million homes, were apparently undamaged and international monitors reported no spike in radiation.
But the attack was slammed in Washington, London, and other Western capitals as utterly irresponsible.
“We survived a night that could have stopped the story, the history of Ukraine, the history of Europe,” Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said.
An explosion at Zaporizhzhia would have equalled “six Chernobyls,” he said, referring to the plant in Ukraine that was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.
“Russian tank commanders knew what they were firing at,” Zelensky alleged, adding: “The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Friday decried Russia’s “recklessness” over the shelling of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine and demanded Moscow stop the war against its neighbour.
“Overnight we have also seen reports about the attack against the nuclear power plant. This just demonstrates the recklessness of this war and the importance of ending it and the importance of Russia withdrawing all its troops and engaging good faith in diplomatic efforts,” Stoltenberg said ahead of a meeting with Western foreign ministers.
More than 1.2 million people have already fled Ukraine into neighboring countries since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, United Nations figures showed Friday.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that around half a million of them are youngsters.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has projected that more than four million Ukrainian refugees may eventually need protection and assistance.
“The rate of this exodus is quite phenomenal,” said UNCHR communications chief Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams.
After phoning Zelensky during the night, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanded an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “reckless actions” that “could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe,” and pressed for a ceasefire.
Putin, however, has been unrepentant about an offensive that has cast Russia into the economic, sporting and cultural equivalent of exile to Siberia.
He said Thursday that the invasion was going “strictly according to schedule, according to plan” in its aims of driving out the “neo-Nazis” in Kyiv led by Zelensky—who is Jewish.
Addressing security chiefs in televised comments, Putin added that he would never abandon his conviction “that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, after speaking to Putin on Thursday, believes “the worst is to come,” an aide said.
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog offered Friday to travel to Chernobyl to negotiate with Ukraine and Russia on ensuring the security of Ukraine’s nuclear sites.
“I have indicated to both the Russian Federation and Ukraine my availability… to travel to Chernobyl as soon as possible,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency told reporters.
“Both sides are considering” the possibility, he added.
Grossi said the aim of the trip would be to discuss with both sides a “framework” to safeguard the security and functioning of Ukraine’s nuclear sites.
On February 24, Russia seized the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which left hundreds dead and spread radioactive contamination west across Europe.
Grossi said that any trip would take place after his return from Tehran on Saturday.
There he is due to hold talks with senior Iranian officials over outstanding questions the IAEA has about past nuclear activity at undeclared sites in Iran.