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Russian troops are attacking Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ukraine's foreign minister has tweeted that Russian troops are trying to take the nation's largest nuclear power plant by force. A brief statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this evening described the situation as, quote, "critical."

NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is following the story and joins us now. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: What's the latest at this site right now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, according to the IAEA, Russian troops and armor have moved on the plant. This is called the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. They, as you just said, described the situation as critical.

And there's footage that we've verified here at NPR that appears to show light armored vehicles engaged in combat at the entrance to the plant. Troops are firing flares and tracer rounds, and one of the plant's buildings is on fire. It looks like it's an administrative building, not one of the reactors.

SHAPIRO: Is this the plant that we've seen the Russian military moving towards for days now?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Now, nuclear power makes up about half of Ukraine's energy supply, and this plant is the largest. So obviously, it was going to be a focus of Russian interest. The IAEA has been very concerned that it might be a target of Russian troops, and it's been in constant contact with the plant operators.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament tweeted out a video of what appeared to be locals on a highway running up to the plant. They were trying to barricade that road with garbage trucks and sandbags. But then there were reports today that those things have been removed.

And, you know, a statement on the plant's website, meanwhile, said that it was operating normally. So it's kind of been conflicting information coming out of the situation.

SHAPIRO: And can you just describe this place for us? What is the plant like? What's the layout?

BRUMFIEL: Right, right. So it's located in the southeast of the country, and it's actually the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. It has six reactors. They provide about 6,000 megawatts of power. These reactors are actually a Russian design. The plant was built in the 1980s and 1990s, and it's a fairly large sort of facility. The reactors are lined up along a sort of body of water that's used for cooling.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Ukraine is already home to the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Is there a risk of a Chernobyl-like meltdown here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, we're not going to see a Chernobyl-like meltdown. That was very specific to the design at Chernobyl. These reactors are a different design. But this is still a really, really serious and dangerous situation.

Now, when the Russian troops entered this plant, or even before, the reactor operators who have almost conducted - almost certainly conducted something called a scram. That's an emergency shutdown. But if the reactors were, in fact, operating earlier today, they would still be hot. The reactor cores filled with uranium would be physically hot. They need water to cool them, and that requires, actually, electricity. Ironically, a nuclear power plant needs electricity.

So if power is knocked out to the reactors themselves, this could escalate into a really serious crisis. It's not going to blow up like a bomb, but it could be a really bad situation.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel on the fighting at the nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Thank you very much, Geoff.

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