Ukraine holds disaster drills amid fears Russia could sabotage nuclear power plant
Ukrainian officials have warned Russia may blow up the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Amid fears Russia might blow up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukraine has been holding drills to prepare emergency services with how to deal with a potential radioactive disaster.
ABC News was invited to the drills in the city of Zaporizhzhia this week, about 30 miles from the plant, where firefighters in hazmat gear simulated decontaminating people from radiation during an evacuation.
Emergency workers demonstrated scanning civilians with Geiger counters as they disembarked buses, stripping some civilians and hosing them with water as they lay on stretchers. Firefighters in yellow suits sprayed down vehicles and moved them through a large washer system rigged up between fire trucks.
Ukrainian officials have been sounding increasingly dire warnings around the nuclear plant that Russia has occupied since early in the war. This week, Ukraine's chief of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, claimed Russia had now completed preparation to potentially sabotage the plant if it chooses.
Budanov told The New Statesman magazine that Russian troops had rigged the station's cooling ponds with explosives, that if destroyed could lead to the reactors melting down. He also said Russia had moved explosives-laden vehicles into four of the plant's six power units.
"The situation has never been as severe as now," Budanov said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated the warning again on Saturday at a press conference, saying "there is a serious threat" and that Russia is "technically ready to provoke a local explosion at the station" that could cause a radiation leak. Zelenskyy has called on the international community to take the threat seriously and deter Russia from damaging the plant.
The nuclear plant, the largest in Europe, has been largely shut down for months and is currently not producing any electricity.
Ukraine has said Russia could choose to cause different scales of damage to the station, ranging from a smaller radiation leak to trying to cause the reactors to meltdown.
Russia has denied the accusations and accused Ukraine of preparing to stage an attack at the plant.
Ukrainian officials have warned they fear the Kremlin might blow up the plant in the event Ukraine achieves a major breakthrough with its counteroffensive in the south, trying to halt the advance of Ukrainian troops by contaminating the area. They also worry Russia might trigger an incident at the plant in the hope of freezing the war, by pushing a panicked international community to force Kyiv into premature peace negotiations that would favor the Kremlin.
Ukraine's first deputy energy minister, Yuriy Vlasenko, told reporters at the drills that in the worst-case scenario 138,000 people might need to be evacuated from Zaporizhzhia alone. Roughly another 300,000 might need to be evacuated from four other regions, he said.
Similar exercises were conducted last year, Vlasenko said. In the event of a real threat of large-scale disaster, three decontamination points would be set up and 23 mustering points where people evacuated from the contaminated zone could gather.
The United States has so far not joined Ukraine in the warnings over the plant, with the White House last week saying it was closely monitoring the situation but so far had seen no indication the threat was "imminent".
"I would tell you that we're watching this very closely. We have, as you know, the ability near the plant to monitor radio activity, and we just haven't seen any indication that that threat is imminent, but we're watching it very, very closely," White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has sent monitoring teams to the station has said it is aware of the reports Russia has mined the cooling pools, but said it had not observed that during a visit by its director general Rafael Grossi in mid-June.
Ukrainian firefighters who took part in the drill told ABC they believed the risk Russia could sabotage the plant was real, but hoped it still would not do so.
They said their worries had grown since the Kakhovka dam was blown up last month. If Russia was prepared to cause a disaster on that scale, it suggests it might be willing to do the same with the plant, they said.
"They are unpredictable people," one firefighter told ABC News. "We didn't think the dam would be blown up. But it was blown up."
ABC News Live
24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events