Russian forces have laid siege to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, causing a fire to break out on site and widespread alarm to ripple around the world.
Social media lit up with panicked speculation in the early hours of Friday as more than 95,000 people tuned in to a CCTV livestream of the Zaporizhzhia plant, which showed a flaming building and, at one point, tracer rounds being fired from an unknown source.
Social media users, news outlets, and officials spread unverified claims about the severity of the incident, including suggestions that there were worryingly elevated levels of radiation and that one of the plant’s main reactors was on fire.
Much of the alarm seemed to stem from a tweet by Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who said that if Zaporizhzhia blew up, the explosion would be 10 times larger than Chernobyl—a claim that was later disputed by a number of experts.
Other reports out of Ukraine raised similar concerns that the incident could lead to a continental catastrophe.
“We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire,” Andriy Tuz, spokesperson for the plant in Enerhodar, said in a video posted on Telegram. “There is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meanwhile said he had informed the leaders of the U.S., the UK, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency about the threat of nuclear disaster.
“If there is an explosion—that’s the end for everyone,” Zelenskyy said in an emotional speech uploaded to social media. “The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
“Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops,” he added. “Do not allow the death of Europe from a catastrophe at a nuclear power station.”
But some commentators suggested that the Ukrainian president’s claims were overblown and misleading.
“This is false. Zaporizhzhia does not risk a ‘nuclear radiation catastrophe.’ If it did, he would've ordered it off,” said Mark Nelson, a Cambridge graduate in nuclear engineering who was featured as one of the main speakers in a Twitter Spaces livestream on the issue soon after news broke.
“I’m afraid to say this looks like a coordinated effort to induce panic,” he wrote.
Others challenged the claims made by Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs.
“Rumours going around that an accident at #Zaporizhzhia would be '10x worse than Chernobyl' are absolutely irresponsible rubbish,” Jeremy Gordon, a nuclear consultant, wrote on Twitter. “We must be very clear that this is an unusual and frightening situation at #Zaporizhzhia, but there is NOT a nuclear accident in progress and there is no basis to predict an accident either. The main risk right now is to staff working there.”
Zaporizhzhia, one of Ukraine’s four operating nuclear power plants, provides about 25 percent of Ukraine’s power generation. The plant has six reactors, all of which are protected by concrete containment domes. At the time of writing, most of those reactors appeared to have been taken offline.
The IAEA later confirmed that the fire at Zaporizhzhia had not affected any of the power plant’s “essential” equipment, and cited Ukrainian regulators as confirming that there had been “no change reported in radiation levels.” Ukrainian emergency services also confirmed that the fire seen in the livestream was from a training building outside the main perimeter, rather than one of the plant’s reactors.
Authorities from Ukraine’s state emergency service have since released a statement saying that the blaze was “eliminated” at about 6:20AM local time, and there were no victims.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, however, warned of severe danger if the reactors at Zaporizhzhia were hit, and appealed for military forces to cease the use of force.
This latest nuclear threat comes off the back of a Russian operation to seize control of all nuclear and radiation facilities at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on Feb. 24—a move that Olga Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, described as “a great threat to the whole continent.”
“Nuclear power plants & other objects near, even military ones, must not be attacked, as this could result in the release of hazardous powers & subsequent heavy casualties,” Stefanishyna said. “These violations can be considered as war crimes in the case of grievous losses among the civilian population.”
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is still considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, in terms of both cost and casualties. The initial explosion of the nuclear reactor core exploded and the subsequent open-air reactor core fire released huge amounts of airborne radioactive contamination that spread to parts of the USSR and Western Europe. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers an area of approximately 2,600 square kilometres.
While some experts have disputed claims by Ukrainian officials that an explosion at Zaporizhzhia would in any way be commensurate to the Chernobyl disaster, Russia’s military assault on the power plant could constitute a war crime. Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Convention “restricts attack against dams, dikes, and nuclear power stations, if ‘severe’ civilian losses might result from flooding or radioactivity.”
Following Zelenskyy’s callout for European nations to intervene, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said in a statement that Johnson had spoken to the Ukrainian president about “the gravely concerning situation,” and that “both leaders agreed that Russia must immediately cease its attack on the power station and allow unfettered access for emergency services to the plant.”
“The Prime Minister said the reckless actions of President Putin could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe,” the statement read. “The Prime Minister said he would be seeking an emergency UN Security Council meeting in the coming hours, and that the UK would raise this issue immediately with Russia and close partners.”
U.S. President Joe Biden also spoke to Zelenskyy, and joined him in “urging Russia to cease its military activities in the area and allow firefighters and emergency responders to access the site,” according to a statement from the White House.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect Ukrainian authorities’ statement that the fire at the Zaporizhzhia power plant has been put out.
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