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Shelling of Ukraine nuclear plant raising fears and outrage

KYIV, Ukraine — In the early days of the war in Ukraine, Russian troops seized control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant after a fierce battle that included shrapnel hitting the containment structure of Reactor No. 1. The resultant fire was quickly extinguished, a thick wall prevented a breach, and in the ensuing five months, the war and global attention moved on to new fronts, new outrages and new horrors.

The war has had no shortage of devastation and global consequence — shifting geopolitical alliances, hunger in Africa exacerbated by missing grain exports, massacres of Ukrainian civilians, mass migrations, and enormous losses of Ukrainian and Russian troops. Yet, the repeated shelling of the sprawling Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in recent days has roused widespread fears and outrage about the sheer folly and existential danger of turning Europe’s largest nuclear power plant into a theater of war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking late Thursday to a nation that still bears the scars of nuclear catastrophe from the meltdown of the facility at Chernobyl in 1986, said the Kremlin was engaging in “unconcealed nuclear blackmail” and called the situation at the plant “one of the biggest crimes of the terrorist state.”

Neither side has interest in a meltdown, which could lead to widespread releases of deadly radioactive material.

“The degree of infection of other territories of Ukraine and Europe, Russia and Belarus depends on the wind direction,” said the State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management of Ukraine, which oversees the wasteland that still surrounds Chernobyl.

The plant’s reactors are designed to withstand a range of risks, from crashing planes to natural disasters. But direct hits by rockets and missiles may be another matter. Ukraine has resisted returning fire from the plant with American-provided advanced rocket systems, for fear of striking one of the six pressurized water reactors or highly radioactive waste in storage.

But experts expressed even more concern about damage from fires if a shell should hit a power transformer at one of the reactors. That could take the electric network offline, potentially causing a breakdown of the plant’s cooling system and leading to a catastrophic meltdown, said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Each side blames the other for jeopardizing the safety of the plant.

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