Russia seeks ‘leverage’ by seizing nuclear plant: US defense official

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A senior US defense official said on Friday that Russia was likely seeking “leverage” over Ukraine’s civilian population by seizing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is the largest in Europe.

The official said the United States can neither confirm nor dispute Russian claims that it now controls the plant. The official also said there was currently no indication of an increase in radiation levels after a Russian attack on the plant launched Thursday evening US time.

The plant caught fire after part of the facility was hit by a Russian projectile, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said. The fire has since been extinguished, he said.

This image made from video released by the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shows a bright object landing on the grounds of the Enerhodar nuclear power plant, Ukraine, Friday, March 4, 2022.
(Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant via AP)

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“If your goal is to control population centers, if your goal is to supplant the Ukrainian government and replace it with one that suits you better, if your goal is to control Ukraine, it can be assumed that you would want to control the infrastructure and to make sure that you can measure it according to your needs,” the defense official said.

“You can use your influence in this regard to punish a population, to make it harder for that population to resist you,” the official also said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces attacked Europe's largest nuclear power plant on Thursday US time as Russia's brutal war against Ukraine continues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces attacked Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Thursday US time as Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine continues.
(Yuri Kochetkov/Pool)

The attack on the power plant, which is Europe’s largest, has raised concerns of a possible nuclear disaster just days after fighting broke out near Chernobyl as Russian troops tried to advance from the border northern Ukraine to its capital, Kiev.

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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Demytro Kuleba warned on Thursday of a potential disaster “worse than Chernobyl”. Outside observers quickly allayed concerns about a nuclear disaster when reports came in that critical plant facilities appeared to be intact.

But the top US defense official said on Friday the attack underscores the irresponsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

“That takes nothing away from, and there is no excuse to be given, for this invasion and the recklessness with which the Russians are carrying it out – to include a kinetic attack and fighting in and around a power plant nuclear,” the official said. said regarding Russia’s potential strategic goals for taking the plant.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference on the situation at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 4, 2022.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference on the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

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The official also said the United States had limited intelligence on the ground about how the Russians would control the plant, including whether they had the knowledge to keep it operational safely.

“That’s one of the things we’re deeply concerned about is that we don’t know what expertise they have, what they’ve applied to this, what their short-term intentions are,” the official said.

In Friday’s update, the defense official also said the Russians launched more than 500 missiles at Ukraine. The official also said that the Ukrainians “have at their disposal a vast majority of their air combat power, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing, as well as unmanned and surface-to-air systems.”

Fox News’ Brie Stimson and Lucas Tomlinson contributed to this report.