Russian forces seize Europe’s largest nuclear plant as the death toll rises in Ukraine

Russian troops seized the largest nuclear power plant in Europe Friday, after attacking it overnight and starting a fire that stoked fears of a calamity. The fire, which was put out, was not in any of the facility's six nuclear reactors. Meanwhile, the crackdown on information and dissent continues in Russia and the flow of refugees fleeing Ukraine continues. Nick Schifrin reports from Lviv.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russian troops seized the largest nuclear power plant in Europe today, after attacking it overnight and starting a fire that stoked fears of a calamity. The fire, which was put out, was not in any of the facility's six nuclear reactors.

    Meantime, the crackdown on information and dissent continues in Russia. President Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure making it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison for contradicting official government pronouncements on the war.

    And the flow of refugees fleeing Ukraine continues. More than 1.2 million Ukrainians have left their homes for surrounding nations.

    Again tonight, from Lviv in Western Ukraine, Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a moment, the world held its breath. Last night, Russia turned its guns on Europe's largest nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia. By daylight, firefighters extinguished the fire at a training facility, but not the fear that this attack could have caused a disaster worse than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in history.

    Chernobyl's destruction, also in Ukraine, ensued from one reactor. The Zaporizhzhia plant has six.

    Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The International Atomic Energy Agency called it a close call. Officials say all the reactors remain intact, and radiation did not leak.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack terror on an unprecedented level and addressed Russia in Russian.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    Together, in 1986, we struggled with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. You must remember. And if you have not forgotten, then you cannot be silent. You must tell your authorities you want to live. Radiation does not know where the border of Russia is.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The town around the plant had been resisting Moscow's onslaught with human barricades and trucks, as much people power as they could muster.

    But this is that same road today. Russians captured the town and the plant after their missile strikes and soldiers left devastation. Now residents cower from Moscow's military.

  • Woman (through translator):

    There is an armored vehicle.

  • Man (through translator):

    Keep quiet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Further south, the port city of Mariupol of half-a-million people under siege. The city is witnessing some of the war's fiercest fighting and unrestricted shelling.

    And the siege of Mariupol is claiming mostly civilians. Yesterday, the victim was a 16-year-old boy. The father waits for the unspeakable, a city steeped in sorrow by the first week of Putin's war.

    Sergei Orlov, Deputy Mayor of Mariupol, Ukraine: Day by day, hour by hour, second by second, he is destroying the city.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sergei Orlov is Mariupol's deputy mayor. He says Russia has targeted not only the city's infrastructure, but also markets, homes, hospitals, and schools. And, for Orlov, it's now become personal.

  • Sergei Orlov:

    Most of the buildings are destroyed. I don't have — I don't have connection with my parents for three days. I don't know, do they live or not?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Syrians and their Russian allies used to use a phrase during that war: Submit or starve.

    Do you believe that's what's happening?

  • Sergei Orlov:

    So, you can find in Internet pictures of Aleppo. And, in two or three days, Mariupol, it looks like the same. We are afraid by our people, because 400,000 citizens blocked in the city.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials say Russia is making less progress in the north, where the convoy outside Kyiv remains stalled, than in the south, where Russia's seizure of Kherson adds to fears that Odessa is the next target and could cut Ukraine off from the coast.

    Ukraine says these offensives can only be stopped with a no-fly zone, but NATO officials in Brussels are adamant that is not an option.

  • Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General:

    We are not part of this conflict, and we have a responsibility to ensure it does not escalate and spread beyond Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that wasn't good enough.

    Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs: We will continue fighting. but help us. If you don't, I'm afraid you will have to share responsibility for the lives and sufferings of civilian Ukrainians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Ukraine's far west, civilians who've fled the fighting take shelter. This is an I.T. company converted into a home for the displaced, where kids can be kids and even share a smile.

    But for the Khankhodzhayeva family, like every family here, they have seen too much. The youngest, Asiya, almost 2, her grandma, the matriarch, Muhabat, 60, granddaughter Kamilla 14.

    How are you?

  • Kamilla Khankhodzhayeva, Displaced Kyiv Resident:

    I am happy that we arrived here, and nobody was — nobody get hurt. In Kyiv, like, there were explodes. When I hear it, I panic. I started to panic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And what about your brothers and sisters? What did they do?

  • Kamilla Khankhodzhayeva:

    They are hiding in the hallway, as our family. They were really scared, scary noises that something is going to explode in every minute or second. I say that everything will be fine, and if they start to panic, they won't be able to run or survive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They fled through the chaos of Kyiv's train station, and, after they boarded, a Russian missile landed nearby.

  • Kamilla Khankhodzhayeva:

    I was so scared. Everyone was scared, shocked, nervous. We heard the explode. My sister started to cry, and say: "I want to go home."

    Everyone was on the floor because everyone was scared.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The entire family fled Uzbekistan in the late 1990s, for physical and economic safety. Today, as they witness a war that steals loved ones, they have decided to become immigrants again.

  • Woman (through translator):

    How many young beautiful boys are now laying in the ground? I want peace to return to Ukraine as soon as possible, for kids to be happy together with their parents.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This sanctuary is short-lived. It is time to load up. Along with so many victims of this war, their destination is west, outside of Ukraine. As of now, they have no plan to return.

  • Kamilla Khankhodzhayeva:

    To be honest, I feel sad to leave my home. But now it's dangerous to go back.

    Somebody has to stop the war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The joy of being a child stolen by the war.

    The family tells me tonight they have entered Poland without any problems and hope to head to Germany, where they have relatives.

    The war has forced them for the second time to leave countries with only what they can carry. Judy, they will have to start all over again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just simply heartbreaking.

    And, Nick, what are the authorities there in Lviv, where you are, saying about the influx of displaced Ukrainians growing even larger?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A member of Parliament here said that 30,000 displaced arrived last night, and the number tonight could be two to three times that.

    And the Lviv train station has an official capacity of only 5,000. If many of the displaced come into the city, the city could struggle to offer enough for them to eat and enough places for them to stay. But most of them are expected to continue into Poland. And U.S. and Ukrainian officials do say that those border crossings between Ukraine and Poland are much more calm, much more than orderly than they were earlier this week.

    But, Judy, it is just remarkable; 1.2 million Ukrainians — that is 3 percent of the country — have chosen to become refugees. That is just in one week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I just don't remember a human outflow like what we are watching right now, much less the misery.

    Nick Schifrin reporting from Lviv in Western Ukraine.

    Thank you, Nick.

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