Russian forces seize control of Chernobyl nuclear plant, Ukrainian official says

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(CNN) -- Russian forces have seized control of the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, according to the agency that manages the area.

Troops overran the plant on the first day of Russia's multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine, a spokeswoman for the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, Yevgeniya Kuznetsovа, told CNN.

"When I came to the office today in the morning [in Kyiv], it turned out, that the [Chernobyl nuclear power plant] management had left. So there was no one to give instructions or defend," she said.

Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian forces were attempting to wrest control of the nuclear plant.

"Russian occupation forces are trying to seize the Chernobyl [Nuclear Power Plant]. Our defenders are sacrificing their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated," Zelensky tweeted. "This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe."

The Ukrainian foreign ministry echoed the president's warning, raising the specter of another nuclear disaster in the city.

"In 1986, the world saw the biggest technological disaster in Chernobyl," the ministry tweeted. "If Russia continues the war, Chernobyl can happen again in 2022."

More than 30 people died in the immediate aftermath of an explosion that tore through Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor on April 26, 1986, near Pripyat, Ukraine. In the years that followed, countless others died from radiation symptoms, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. The Ukraine government evacuated some 135,000 people from the area and the 19-mile exclusion zone around the plant will remain uninhabitable for decades.

In the months after the accident, a sarcophagus was built to cover Reactor 4 and contain the radioactive material. However, it has since deteriorated, resulting in radiation leaks.

Russia' launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine before dawn on Thursday with a series of missile attacks against locations near the capital Kyiv, as well as the use of long-range artillery against the city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border. The assault quickly spread across central and eastern Ukraine as Russian forces attacked the country from three sides.

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