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News brief: nuclear plant seized, Russian bombardments, Trial related to Jan. 6

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian forces have captured Europe's largest nuclear power plant located in Ukraine.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Heavy shelling caused a fire to break out near one of the plant's six reactors, but Ukrainian authorities say the fire has been extinguished. They also say there were many casualties from the fighting around the plant, which started late Thursday. The International Atomic Energy Agency says radiation levels are normal at the plant. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant provides more than a fifth of total electricity generated in Ukraine, and initial reports raised fears of a nuclear disaster like the one of Chernobyl in 1986.

MARTIN: So that's not scary at all, is it? NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel joins us this morning. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning. It is scary.

MARTIN: Oh, OK, so what is going on right now? Just tell us what the situation is there.

BRUMFIEL: Right. So as we just heard overnight, Russian troops apparently staged an attack against the plant. Footage verified by NPR showed what appeared to be light armored vehicles engaged in combat. Troops were firing flares and tracer rounds. And one of the plant's buildings caught fire. Now, this fire was at a training center near the plant's main gate, not an essential building. And it appears to be out now, according to my colleague, Lauren Frayer's, reporting. Russian troops control the entrance and some administrative buildings, but it still remains under operation by Ukrainians. A statement from Ukraine's safety agency says that it appears the reactor closest to the fighting sustained some damage, but its integrity appears to be intact.

MARTIN: OK, I want to focus on the fact that the integrity appears to be intact, but I can't help the fact that you just said it did sustain some damage. I mean, how serious are we talking about here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, these reactors are huge machines, and the nuclear material sits inside a thick metal pressure vessel known as its containment. So these things are really tough, and the buildings they're in are probably hardened both inside and out. It's entirely possible that it was damaged superficially and that the reactor is safe. But, I mean, I don't think we've ever been here before, either from a nuclear power perspective or a combat perspective. I've never seen anything like this.

MARTIN: Explain why Russia would want control of this plant.

BRUMFIEL: This plant is essential to Ukraine. About half of Ukraine's energy comes from nuclear power. And this is, you know, six reactors providing 6,000 megawatts of power. So we've seen Russians take control of other essential infrastructure in recent days, including hydroelectric dams. It makes sense they would try and seize this facility.

MARTIN: So as A noted, Geoff, Ukraine is already home to the worst nuclear disaster the world's ever seen - right? - Chernobyl. If this plant is compromised more significantly in future fighting, I mean, what are the odds that we could see a disaster like that again?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, first of all, it's not over there yet. These reactors need to be cooled even after they've been shut off, so that plant needs power and water to continue to flow for days or even weeks to keep the reactors safe. But this is a different design than the Chernobyl reactor - very different, actually. It's quite a bit safer. I don't think that we're going to see a major meltdown of that particular type. We certainly won't see a nuclear explosion. Nuclear reactors are very different than nuclear bombs, so you don't need to worry about that. But this remains serious, and there are other plants in Ukraine, including one near Odesa. So this is not over from a nuclear power perspective.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Russia has launched hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on Ukrainian cities over the past few days.

MARTINEZ: Thousands of people are believed to have been killed or wounded since the start of Russia's invasion more than a week ago. The firepower has helped Russia make significant gains in the south, including capturing the city of Kherson, but its advance on the capital of Kyiv has stalled.

MARTIN: So we're going to talk about what is happening on the ground in the broader invasion with NPR's Tim Mak. He's in Ternopil Oblast. Tim, thanks for being here this morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Of course.

MARTIN: We just heard about the crisis at the nuclear plant. What can you tell us about the Russian advances elsewhere?

MAK: Well, Russian bombardments continue all throughout this country, but they still appear to be stalled - ground forces are - near Kyiv. The Ukrainian military claims that the Russians have actually withdrawn from a strategic airfield not far outside Kyiv. It's been this place that has swapped control many times over the last few days, this absolutely critical piece of infrastructure for both sides. As you mentioned in the south, there's a lot of fighting, and the Russians have made a little bit more progress there. The Ukrainian military says they anticipate a naval landing around the southern city of Odesa. The Ukrainian government also says that residential areas continue to be hit with explosives and explosions in the northeast city of Kharkiv that's near the Russian border.

MARTIN: So Ukraine had a growing and diverse economy before this war, not just agriculture but also technology sectors. I understand you've been spending some time talking with business owners in Ukraine, people who haven't fled at this point. What are you hearing?

MAK: Well, it's absolutely remarkable. The private sector and, really, every facet of the economy has seemingly changed overnight to support this war effort. So over the past 24 hours, I've visited a school that's transformed into a facility for building camouflage nets, a veterans home that is now a logistics hub for military food supplies, a milk production factory, they've just tossed out their business plan. They're trying to send their food to the front lines as quickly as possible. We spoke to Igor (ph). He is the owner of this industrial business that focuses on combines and grain silos. We talked to him at his warehouse in Ternopil.

IGOR: It's a simple answer. Russian army came to us. We need to help anyway. So right now, we helping as we can. We understand that it could be times that we will have to take our guns. So we are defending our land.

MAK: So Igor, who once made agricultural equipment, has his team hard at work welding old railroad tracks together to make these Hedgehogs. You might remember them from that scene on Omaha Beach from "Saving Private Ryan," those large anti-tank devices.

MARTIN: Right. So many Ukrainians are still trying to get out of the country - right? - trying to get somewhere safe. What about that plight? Is it getting easier or harder for people to leave?

MAK: Well, the conditions for civilians have been very difficult. The U.N. refugee agency says that at least 1 million people have fled the country, and there are long waits at the border. And worst of all are the children, who are frightened. I saw this one girl who was hiding behind what appeared to be her grandmother as these air sirens wailed and the family sought shelter. But I was told by one aid worker who's headed back to Kyiv to also look for stories of joy, and they are still here. Children are still children, even in camps for internally displaced people, and they still find a way to play and laugh. I saw a group of them playing and laughing actually last night by a foosball table at a safe house.

MARTIN: You take the joy where you can get it. NPR's Tim Mak on the road in western Ukraine. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It was an emotional day of testimony yesterday in the first trial connected with last year's January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

MARTINEZ: The defendant is named Guy Reffitt. He's part of an anti-government militia group in Texas, and prosecutors say he brought a gun with him to the Capitol grounds on January 6 and charged at the police line. One of the key witnesses for the prosecution was Reffitt's own 19-year-old son, Jackson.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Dreisbach has been covering the trial. Hi, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Morning.

MARTIN: So first, what can you tell us about Jackson Reffitt and his decision to testify?

DREISBACH: Well, yeah, his path to this day, this very emotional day in court, started more than a year ago when he contacted the FBI about his dad. His father, Guy Reffitt, the defendant, went to D.C. on January 6. That's not in dispute. And prosecutors showed us videos from that day where Reffitt threatens to drag politicians out of the Capitol by their hair. And then you can see him on other video climbing a stairwell on the outside of the building headed towards a police line before he's hit by so much bear spray, he has to turn back. Now, when Guy Reffitt returned back to Texas after January 6, Jackson, the son, testified that his dad was proud of what he had done at the Capitol. And so the son actually started secretly recording what his dad was saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUY REFFITT: There will be days your whole life when you'll know that your father was there when a epic, historical thing happened in this country. And guess what? We're not done yet. I've got a lot more to do.

DREISBACH: I've got a lot more to do, you heard. And on that tape, Guy Reffitt called that day an insurrection. He described charging towards the police line, helping people take over the Capitol. He also said that he had his gun on him and, quote, "everyone I know who was there was carrying weapons," though they did not fire any shots. And at one point on the tape, Jackson Reffitt, the son, has this argument with his dad about whether he broke the law that day. Guy talks first in this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G REFFITT: Tell me the law I broke.

JACKSON REFFITT: You carried a weapon onto federal grounds.

G REFFITT: OK.

J REFFITT: OK.

G REFFITT: Which part of that is breaking the law?

DREISBACH: Guy Reffitt basically asserts that he was protected by the Second Amendment, which is not really the law on Capitol grounds.

MARTIN: So what did the son do with the recordings?

DREISBACH: Not long after this, Jackson testified that his dad had become more paranoid about being arrested. He told his kids that they shouldn't turn their dad into law enforcement because, quote, "traitors get shot." Later that same day of that conversation, Jackson Reffitt went to the FBI, handed them the recordings, plus screenshots of text messages, and five days later, the FBI arrested Guy Reffitt.

MARTIN: Wow. What was the reaction in the courtroom to these recordings?

DREISBACH: Yeah. At the start of the testimony, his dad, the defendant, burst into tears. His mom was also in the gallery, also quite emotional. Jackson himself was very soft-spoken, calm. He has not been in close touch with his family since he turned his dad in to the FBI. He did wave at his mom as he left the courtroom.

MARTIN: Oh, man. What was the defense's response?

DREISBACH: Well, his defense attorney said at the beginning of the trial his client brags and exaggerates. He questioned Jackson Reffitt about his dad's drinking and use of the drug Xanax, suggesting that maybe he was under the influence when he said these things to his son. Jackson Reffitt has also given up quite a few interviews to the media and received online donations. So the defense suggested he may be seeking publicity. The prosecutor asked Jackson Reffitt about that, if he turned his dad in to get rich and famous, he said no.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Dreisbach. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.