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The fire at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine has been extinguished

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russian forces captured Europe's largest nuclear power plant, located in Ukraine. Heavy fighting caused a fire to break out near one of the plant's six reactors, but Ukrainian authorities say the fire has been extinguished. They also say there were many casualties from the fighting around the plant, which started late Thursday. At a press conference earlier this morning, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said that the plant's safety systems are intact.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RAFAEL GROSSI: There has been no release of radioactive material.

MARTINEZ: Joining us to discuss what's going on is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, so what is going on at the site right now?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, as you just said there, overnight, there was this attack staged by Russian forces against the plant. And footage verified by NPR showed what appeared to be light armored vehicles engaged in combat at the site. Troops were firing flares and tracer rounds, and one of the plant's buildings caught fire. Now, that fire was in a training center by the plant's main gate, not in a central building. And it does appear to be out, as you said. According to my colleague Lauren Frayer's reporting, Russian troops are in control of the entrance and some administrative buildings at the plant. But it still remains under operation by the Ukrainians. So a statement from Ukraine's safety agency also says that the reactor closest to the fighting sustained some damage. But its integrity appears to be intact.

MARTINEZ: I mean, damage to a nuclear reactor - it sounds terrifying. I mean, how worried should everyone be?

BRUMFIEL: Well, yeah, I mean, this is not good. Any sort of damage to a reactor is never good, but these are huge machines. The nuclear material in the reactor sits inside this thick metal pressure vessel known as its containment. And it's really tough. So it's entirely possible this building sustained some kind of damage superficially. But the reactor itself is safe. You know, still, though, we've just never been here before, either in terms of nuclear power or modern warfare. This is something that's never happened as far as I know.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So why would, then, Russia want to take control of this plant?

BRUMFIEL: Well, about half of Ukraine's electricity comes from nuclear power. And this plant is the biggest. It's located in the southeast and hugely important to the nation. These six reactors provide up to 6,000 megawatts of power. And we've already seen Russia move in on other essential infrastructure like hydroelectric dams, so it makes sense they'd try to seize this facility.

MARTINEZ: I think we all know this, but Ukraine is already home to the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen, and that's Chernobyl. Could we be looking at a Chernobyl-like meltdown at some point?

BRUMFIEL: Probably not - definitely not a Chernobyl-like meltdown. These reactors are a different design. And overall, they're much safer than what was in operation at Chernobyl. But I got to say this remains a super serious situation. Large reactors like these - you can't just flip a switch and turn them off. Their nuclear cores remain hot for days or even weeks after shutdown. So this plant still needs operators working there. It needs power and water to cool the cores. And there's still three other nuclear power plants in other parts of the country, including one near Odesa. So, I mean, I think we are still dealing with a very fluid situation, and there's a lot of risk here. It's something really unprecedented.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks a lot.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.