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A camera at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine captured footage on March 3 that appears to show a co-ordinated attack by Russian forces, with flares and apparent weapons firing in front of a complex of administration buildings.

The Globe and Mail

Russian forces have taken control of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant after an overnight attack on a facility that produces a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity, with the country’s regulator warning that an accident now could produce the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

A fire broke out at a training building for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station as a result of early morning shelling, Ukraine’s state emergency service said. That was extinguished by daybreak and no rise in radiation levels was reported at the site.

But only one of the plant’s six units remains in operation, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine reported Friday morning. Two of the plant’s six units have been disconnected from the grid and a further two are being cooled down, it said. Plant personnel continue their work, while inspections are being carried out to examine any damage.

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Operation of the nuclear plant continues normally, safety experts said, and Zaporizhzhia is equipped with several backup systems to continue cooling operations for days. Those include safety upgrades made following the Fukushima disaster.

But the consequences of a mistake are dire, the regulator warned.

“The loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment,” it said. “As a result, such an event may exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the fire “has not affected ‘essential’ equipment.”

The attack on Zaporizhzhia is “serious and reckless attack on a nuclear site,” UK Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told the BBC Friday morning.

Oleksandr Shubin, an engineer working inside the sixth unit of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station Thursday night, told The Globe and Mail that video feeds had showed flames at a training centre at the power plant. Though that fire was extinguished, there also appeared to be damage to the walls of power units, he said. The seriousness of that damage cannot be determined until inspections are done.

Inside the power plant, he said, colleagues prayed that there would be no direct hit on the station.

Power plant communication lines were also damaged in an attack that began Thursday afternoon on Enerhodar, the Ukrainian city that had earlier seen thousands of unarmed civilians attempt to guard a critical piece of infrastructure.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused the Russian army of “firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia,” warning on Twitter that “if it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl!”

The early stages of the attack were streamed live on Facebook just after 4 p.m. by Victor Buchnyev, an adviser to the mayor of Enerhodar. The video shows black smoke billowing above a barricade created by people in Enerhodar. They parked wrecked cars, dump trucks and garbage trucks and piled stacks of tires on the road several kilometres from the power plant.

The plant itself is defended by the National Guard.

In the video, Mr. Buchnyev approaches the burning barricade. “Hundreds of pieces of equipment, three tanks and a lot of infantry have come to us,” he says in the video. “And now we hear the explosions.

“Get out of there! Get out of there!” he yells, amid the sound of blasts.

Inside the nuclear plant, workers were ordered not to leave, even as the attack left them incredulous at what was happening.

Open this photo in gallery:

In video streamed live on Facebook, Victor Buchnyev, adviser to the mayor of Enerhodar, says 'hundreds of pieces of equipment, three tanks and a lot of infantry have come to us, and now we hear the explosions.'Victor Buchnyev/Handout

“The worst has happened. They are firing at the nuclear power plant and do not respond to demands to stop,” Mr. Shubin said.

Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russia to “cease its activities in the area and allow emergency responders to access the site” following a phone call to discuss the situation, the White House said. Mr. Zelensky also spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. “These unacceptable attacks by Russia must cease immediately,” Mr. Trudeau said on Twitter.

The power plant assault demonstrated a new effort by Russian forces to take control of a critical piece of Ukrainian infrastructure. Attacking forces dismantled a barricade that had been a scene of defiance Tuesday and Wednesday, when thousands of unarmed civilians – many of them workers at the power plant – gathered there to block any Russian advance.

They had responded to calls on the chat app Telegram by Mayor Dmytro Orlov to assemble in numbers when Russian forces approached. But on Thursday afternoon, only a few dozen people were at the barricade when Mr. Orlov wrote on Telegram, at 4:19 p.m.: “The enemy is approaching the city! Let’s go out!”

Four minutes later, he changed course.

“The checkpoint was fired upon! The enemy used weapons!!! Stay at home!!!” he wrote.

Mr. Buchnyev’s video begins a few minutes later. It shows a fireball and smoke, as well as men tossing bits of flaming debris back across the barricade. One appears to be on fire.

“Tank. It was a tank,” Mr. Buchnyev says in the video. “This is what the Russian world looks like,” he says, amid the wail of air raid sirens. “God save us.”

As he begins to run from the blockade, men carrying guns begin to move toward the blockade, and the sound of gunfire breaks out.

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The attacking forces, which include Chechen fighters and the Russian army, had engaged in a kind of negotiation Wednesday in which they said they merely wanted to “take only a couple of photos” to send proof that they had “really taken this position next to the nuclear power plant,” Mr. Buchnyev said in an interview.

The Russian representatives also said they wanted to “free our nuclear power plant from our army,” Mr. Buchnyev said. Their attack force included representatives from Rosatom, the Russian state atomiс energy corporation, he said.

People in Enerhodar have warned that fighting around the nuclear plant could have devastating consequences.

“Military actions in the area where the nuclear station is located cannot happen,” Mr. Varvarov said.

Russian weaponry has proven imprecise, with evidence from across Ukraine that missiles and rockets have missed their targets. “It’s very dangerous if they use their weapons and they hit the nuclear station,” he said.

Russian forces have already taken control of Chernobyl, and workers in Enerhodar have raised fears about what Moscow might want with their power plant.

“If we are attacked, we have little chance to win and stay alive,” Ruslan Pankratov, a shift chief in the turbine department, said Thursday, before the assault on the barricade. “But it’s important to understand that the station is very important, strategically, and the ability of the station to function affects the entire country. So we need to understand it might be dangerous if something happens.”

As the attack unfolded, people in Enerhodar took cover. Mr. Shubin’s pregnant wife and son were “at home hiding,” he said. He was inside, watching social-media reports of the attack. He was also ruing an unexpected end to his efforts to immigrate to Canada, after receiving a message Thursday that he had been removed as an applicant to the Manitoba skilled-worker program for failing to demonstrate sufficient English-language skills.

Early Friday morning, he described the attack as the worst moment in his life.

“I understand what the consequences of what they are doing here can lead to. And that creates a fear that I have never experienced before,” he said. “I understand that if the unthinkable happens, this is the end.”

With reports from Reuters and Adrian Morrow in Washington

Ukrainians have set up a roadblock with heavy vehicles and other obstacles in an attempt to stop a Russian advance on Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant near Enerhodar. Weapons fire can be heard in the footage, along with hundreds of civilians behind the blockade.

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