Russia Bombs Ukraine Nuclear Research Lab, Sets It Ablaze, Report Says

Video footage from Kharkiv, Ukraine, circulating on social media shows the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology on fire after a Russian rocket attack.

The institute has nuclear material and a reactor on its site in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, increasing fears of a potential "large-scale ecological disaster," according to The Independent.

News of the airstrike on the research center adds to mounting fears about the potential dangers to Ukrainian nuclear power plants, such as Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, that have been taken over by Russian forces as the invasion of Ukraine enters its third week.

Russian state-owned news agency Tass has been warning of a possible takeover of the institute for days. On Monday, it released a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry that said the Ukrainian military and the Azov battalion, a neo-Nazi military regiment, are "planning to blow up the reactor and accuse the Russian Armed Forces of allegedly launching a missile strike on an experimental nuclear system."

In a Thursday Tass report, Alexander Shulgin, Russia's permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said a potential nuclear disaster at the research center was thwarted only because of Russian military intervention. The report provided no evidence to support the assertion.

On Monday, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine reported the facility was damaged in earlier attacks, including a destroyed substation, broken air conditioning and shattered windows.

"Prior to the Russian aggression, the neutron source was at the initial startup stage and thus the core was loaded with fresh nuclear fuel," the report said.

However, Harvard professor Matthew Bunn told Physics Today that the facility is "an accelerator-driven subcritical assembly and not a critical nuclear reactor," so a large nuclear accident is not likely.

"The assembly cannot sustain a chain reaction without neutrons from the accelerator," the Physics Today report said. Bunn noted that the danger comes from the bullets and bombs, not radiation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in a Monday press release that the damage the facility had sustained as of that day "would not have had any radiological consequence." It has yet to comment on Thursday's fire, however.

On Tuesday, the IAEA released a statement expressing its concern for the staff at the Chernobyl nuclear site. Workers have been stuck in the facility since the Russian forces attacked and have not rotated shifts for two weeks.

"It is high time to stop an armed conflict from putting nuclear facilities at severe risk, potentially endangering the safety of people and the environment in Ukraine and beyond. Words must mean something—it is time for action," IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said.

Update 03/10/22, 4:50 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information and background.

Kharkiv Shelling Damage
Ukraine's Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which contains nuclear material and a reactor, has reportedly been hit in a Russian rocket attack. Above, a Kharkiv apartment building on Tuesday after shelling the day before. Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images