An image grab from footage obtained from a livestream from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Authority on March 4, 2022 shows multiple blasts at key a Ukrainian nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia Image Credit: AFP

For few hours early Friday, the world came as close as it gets to a nuclear disaster. Shelling of Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant in the city of Enerhodar set fire to one of its six reactors. There was panic worldwide, fearing a new Chernobyl catastrophe.

Thankfully, the fire was put out quickly and as per the initial investigation, the plant’s safety was intact and the radiation level at the site was at normal. The State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine said later that Russian forces have taken control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

But, for a brief time in the early hours of Friday, we got a glimpse of what the ongoing conflict could lead to — one more compelling reason to cease fire and star talking. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said on Twitter that if the power plant blows up “it will be 10 times larger than Chernobyl.”

A quickly developing crisis

In eight days of fighting, hundreds have been killed from both sides. At least 1 million people have already fled Ukraine. The United Nations says the number could grow to 5 million, leading to a human catastrophe as Russian forces continue to close on major cities in the country of 40 million.

On Thursday, the second round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian in Belarus resulted in an agreement to establish ‘humanitarian corridors’ for the safe evacuation of civilians and the delivery of supplies to those staying in Ukraine.

This is a significant development. It also means that communication channel between the two sides is open. And that is critical at the moment when the world is under a real threat of another Chernobyl.

Russia seems intent on pushing ahead with its declared plan to demilitarise Ukraine, a key goal of President Vladimir Putin’s current campaign, according to French President Emmanuel Macron who spoke to the Russian leader on Thursday. Ukraine must be a neutral country and renounce its bid to join Nato, Moscow insists.

Those demands are essential to the strategic security of Russia as per an earlier letter the Kremlin sent to the Western alliance. The alliance had refused to accept Russia’s requests for written security guarantees.

Things have changed since, dramatically and dangerously. Amid a quickly developing human crisis, we got so close on Friday morning to a nuclear disaster. Both events must lead Nato and Russia to restart talks. The West needs to reconsider its position vis-a-vis Russia’s legitimate concerns.

Moscow meanwhile needs to heed the calls of its friends, many of whom have already offered to mediate.