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News brief: Russia-Ukraine latest, Ukrainian refugees, Bill Barr book

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Another round of Russia-Ukraine talks is expected to take place in Belarus today. Meanwhile, there's growing concern about keeping Ukraine's power plants, nuclear power plants, out of the fighting.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It was just Friday that Russia seized control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant. That was in a port city where intense shelling and a fire on the grounds raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe in the middle of a Russian siege.

MARTIN: Our co-host Leila Fadel has been watching the latest developments from the city of Lviv in the western part of Ukraine, and she joins us now. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So how much of Ukraine's nuclear power infrastructure does Russia control now?

FADEL: Right. Of Ukraine's four nuclear power plants, they control half. That power plant has six nuclear reactors in it, the one you mentioned. And that's the biggest - the biggest concern at that facility in Zaporizhzhia is the staff. Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency said they were having trouble reaching the staff there, that Russian forces had switched off some mobile networks, the internet. So it seems the staff and scientists, at least at this facility - which, as you mentioned, is Europe's largest nuclear power plant - are operating under some level of duress.

MARTIN: Right. And we should just say, the staff there - they're still Ukrainians. Russia didn't come in and supplant them.

FADEL: Same staff, exactly.

MARTIN: Right.

FADEL: Right.

MARTIN: So how does taking over these power plants - how does this fit into Russia's strategy?

FADEL: Well, the first and probably key goal has to do with energy. I spoke with Mariana Budjeryn. She's a nuclear expert at Harvard's Belfer Center.

MARIANA BUDJERYN: Ukraine relies very heavily on nuclear energy. About 50% of its energy mix, overall energy mix, comes from nuclear power plants. So if you seize those, you pretty much control what people get full electricity, what industry gets full electricity. And it's one of the ways to control and subdue a country.

MARTIN: But this is also a safety concern - isn't it? - when nuclear power plants become pawns in a war.

FADEL: Absolutely. I mean, nobody benefits from a nuclear event, a nuclear disaster - far-reaching consequences there. But Budjeryn is also worried about a different kind of nuclear disaster separate from the takeover of these plants. She says she's worried Vladimir Putin could play a terrifying card if he's seen as losing to Ukraine. As you know, Ukraine has put up a fierce resistance to Russian forces, and she says she's worried Putin won't accept being seen as a loser.

BUDJERYN: I wonder if he might resort to use of a tactical, of a small nuclear weapon to shock Ukraine - on Ukrainian territory somewhere and then to shock Ukraine into surrender.

FADEL: She says the range of impact could equal or exceed the scope of the atomic bombs that was dropped by the U.S. on Japan near the end of World War II. He could also use a nuclear weapon above a city, exploding it to cause an electromagnetic pulse that would incapacitate a big urban area.

MARTIN: Right, some kind of so-called targeted nuclear strike. So we've got the specter of that looming and then, you know, ongoing concerns about potential nuclear disasters from these plants. I mean, this is a really exceptional moment, isn't it?

FADEL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we haven't seen anything quite like this. Most, if not all, of the safeguards put in place to account for accidents from the past weren't designed with a full-scale war in mind, and that's what makes nuclear experts like Budjeryn so nervous. If something does go wrong, the safeguards in place aren't built to withstand a direct impact from a weapon. So this is new territory.

BUDJERYN: A nuclear accident anywhere is really a nuclear accident everywhere. You cannot control the weather. The winds can carry this radioactivity far and wide. We're talking about a time scale of decades...

FADEL: A disaster.

BUDJERYN: ...That these consequences could continue to play out.

FADEL: A lot at risk here, Rachel.

MARTIN: Indeed. NPR's Leila Fadel talking to us from Lviv, Ukraine. Thank you, Leila, for all your reporting.

FADEL: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Russia's war in Ukraine has created the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

INSKEEP: That's according to the United Nations. In just over 10 days, more than 1 1/2 million people have fled their homes. Most of them crossed into Poland. Over the weekend, negotiators agreed on humanitarian corridors for civilians to leave some war-torn cities, but Ukraine says Russian invaders opened fire on the corridors.

MARTIN: There are now some two dozen refugee so-called reception centers on the Polish border. These are pop-up centers where aid groups and an ad hoc army of volunteers from across Europe have come to try to help. NPR's Eric Westervelt visited several of these, and he joins us now from the border. Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Good morning.

MARTIN: Looks like we've got just a delay on the line. Eric, can you describe for us what you've seen?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, so these sites along the border are bustling, occasionally chaotic places. I went to one set up in an out-of-business supermarket, in its parking lot. You know, the NGOs and the United Nations are there, but so are scores of ordinary folks who've come to help. People from different countries have set up food kitchens. They're directing refugees to buses they've organized. I met a French attorney who said he shut down his firm abruptly, felt compelled to help, told his clients if that doesn't work for you, find another lawyer. You know, people were holding cardboard signs directing refugees to transport across Europe. And one of the people I spoke with was Krstaps Naymanes. He's a deliveryman in Liepaja, Latvia. You know, he took leave from his job and, with friends, helped organize half a dozen cars, some RVs and a large bus to take refugees to Latvia.

KRSTAPS NAYMANES: We have our flat, houses and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Food.

NAYMANES: ...Everything. Don't charge, like, money for this. Peoples want help and can't help. This time - need to do. That's it.

MARTIN: Wow.

WESTERVELT: Another volunteer, Daniel Wuhler, is a chef. He has a catering - (inaudible) - in northern Germany. He drove down here to the border with his mobile kitchen. He was serving up some fresh German stews, breads and coffee - all for free, of course. And he told me, look; this was just the right thing to do.

DANIEL WUHLER: The war is not over at the moment, so everyone have to stay as long as possible, and everyone should help.

MARTIN: And there are a lot of people who need help. Eric, what were your conversations with Ukrainian refugees like?

WESTERVELT: All were very thankful for the warm support and help on this side of the border. But of course, they were also tired, worried and frightened. I talked with a teenager, Anatoli Saracmon, and his 10-year-old brother. They just arrived from Lviv in western Ukraine with their mother.

ANATOLI SARACMON: I think I and my brother will go to Estonia to my uncle, and my mother will come to Ukraine.

WESTERVELT: He means his mother is going to go back to Ukraine. She looked near tears, exhausted. She said, you know, her husband and her job are there, and she just has to go back.

MARTIN: So as of this point, Eric, Europe is welcoming refugees, open arms. But how long can they do that? Is it - is the system going to crack at some point?

WESTERVELT: Well, that's the big concern, Rachel. I mean, is there a number at which Poland and this support system get overwhelmed? I mean, remember; Ukraine has 44 million people. We're at 1 1/2 million refugees, but we're only, you know, 12 days into the war, and as fighting intensifies, the numbers could certainly soar. So the challenge will be to maintain, really, that support, that solidarity and both money and this volunteer army far beyond these first few days of war.

MARTIN: NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from along the Polish border with Ukraine. Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr is defending his record.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you'll recall that Barr oversaw the Justice Department in the second half of Donald Trump's presidency. He made high-profile decisions in favor of Trump or his allies but now has published a memoir called "One Damn Thing After Another," in which he says people have the wrong idea.

WILLIAM BARR: The media chose to weave a narrative that I was a toady to the president, and that was false from the beginning because I felt I could be independent, and I was.

MARTIN: So, Steve, you sat down with William Barr, had an interview about this memoir at his home a few days ago. And he says, you know, people got it wrong, that he wasn't a toady for the president. Isn't that a hard case for Barr to make? I mean, Barr personally intervened in cases involving Trump allies.

INSKEEP: He did intervene, and he doesn't back down from his actions in this book. He famously dropped charges against Trump's former national security adviser, who admitted lying to the FBI. Two thousand former Justice Department officials called on Barr to resign for that, but Barr insists he was just being fair, that the FBI had no reason to investigate Michael Flynn in the first place. He gave Congress his own interpretation of the Mueller report into Russian election interference but insists that's because he didn't think it was well presented. And he generally opposes what he calls the criminalization of politics, turning every disagreement into an investigation.

MARTIN: OK, but what's the evidence that Barr says he was independent-minded?

INSKEEP: Well, his biggest example here is the 2020 election. Barr said in public at the time to a reporter back in November 2020 that there was no evidence of widespread fraud, undermining Donald Trump's false claims at the time. He says Trump was enraged, yelled at him in the Oval Office, but Barr told him to his face that the election theories that Trump followed were BS. Let's hear an extended part of the interview here.

BARR: He didn't seem to listen to anybody except a group of sycophants who were telling him what was - what he wanted to hear.

INSKEEP: We're talking about Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell...

BARR: People like that.

INSKEEP: ...The pillow guy.

BARR: Yeah, a lot of people on the outside and some people on the inside.

INSKEEP: Trump said publicly, the attorney general isn't looking into this; he doesn't want to find the facts. You make it clear in the book you went looking. You looked at the allegations.

BARR: Right. You know, most of the allegations were not really alleging fraud. All the stuff - it was like playing whack-a-mole. All the theories of the day that came out, when we looked into them they just evaporated. They were just completely without foundation. I mean, take - you know, you - recently you interviewed the president. And, you know, he's had a year to think about it, and the evidence he came forward that the election was stolen was this statement that more people voted in Philadelphia than there were voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DONALD TRUMP: Look at Philadelphia. Is it true that there were far more votes than there were voters?

INSKEEP: It is not true that there were far...

TRUMP: Gee, that's a pretty tough thing to...

INSKEEP: It is not true.

TRUMP: That's a pretty tough problem.

BARR: That's completely false. I mean, it's demonstrably false. And yet you continue to hear this thing repeated.

MARTIN: Repeated - so former Attorney General William Barr, with his interview with Steve, Barr's critics are saying this is just about restoring his reputation or trying to. Is that right?

INSKEEP: Well, it is in the sense that he's defending his record. But this memoir makes it pretty clear, Rachel, that Barr's a conservative Republican. He's certainly not trying to win over liberal critics. He writes a lot about the culture wars. He still thinks a lot of criticism of Trump is overblown. But in a way, his politics make his testimony about Joe Biden's election win more powerful.

MARTIN: Thanks, Steve. Barr's book comes out tomorrow.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say Russia controls half of Ukraine's nuclear plants. Only one of the country's active nuclear power plants, the Zaporizhzhia facility, has been seized as of Tuesday. Russian forces have also seized the Chernobyl plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 disaster.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
In a previous web introduction, we incorrectly said Russia is reportedly advancing on the third of Ukraine's four active nuclear power plants, and in the audio, we say Russia controls half of Ukraine's nuclear plants.. Only one of the country's active nuclear power plants, the Zaporizhzhia facility, has been seized as of Tuesday. Russian forces have also seized the Chernobyl plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 disaster.