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Ukraine steps up disaster planning amid turmoil at nuclear power plant

Ukrainian emergency rescue teams work during a nuclear disaster drill in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.  (DAVID GUTTENFELDER)
By Marc Santora New York Times

As concern deepens about the risks of an accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Ukrainian officials urged the public not to panic and began distributing potassium iodide to protect people living near the facility from radiation-induced thyroid cancer in case of a leak.

The heightened alert in a country that still bears the scars from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, generally regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in history, comes amid steadily deteriorating conditions in and around the Russian-controlled plant, which lies in the middle of a war zone.

Authorities have started to hand out the iodine pills to people living within 35 miles of the plant. That area, where an estimated 400,000 people are living in both Ukrainian and Russian-occupied territory, would be most at risk in the event of an accidental leak of radiation.

The Ukrainian minister of health, Viktor Liashko, cautioned in an appearance on national television that people did not need to buy the pills “as we have purchased the drug in exactly the dosage recommended by our researchers.”

“One pill will be enough for the first stage. That’s all,” he said. “But at the moment, if it’s not distributed to people, it is solely for the reason that there is no need to do so, or to ensure that people don’t take it for preventive purposes, out of fear.”

Potassium iodide, also known by the chemical symbol KI, is used to saturate the thyroid gland with iodine so that inhaled or ingested radioactive iodine is not retained.

Dmytro Orlov, exiled mayor of Enerhodar, a Russian-occupied town next to the nuclear power plant, said that although radiation levels around the plant were all within normal ranges, 25,000 iodine tablets were being distributed through personal doctors as a precaution. The Russians control the pharmacies in the city, residents say, but many personal doctors have kept working and can still distribute medicine.

In Ukrainian-controlled territory, the Zaporizhzhia City Council said in a statement that doctors began to issue iodide tablets to residents within 35 miles of the plant, while also stressing there was no need to panic. The council emphasized “that it is necessary to take the drug only in the event of an official notification of a radiation accident.”

Ukrainian regional authorities were also revising their public warning systems and evacuation plans in the event of an emergency. A system for urgent notification has been designed to warn people living both in government-controlled territory as well as areas under Russian occupation, said Olexander Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhia regional military administration.

“Since there will be no time to think in the event of real danger from the actions of the Russian invaders, it will be necessary to strictly adhere to the preapproved action plan,” he said. “Everything and everyone should work as a single mechanism.”

The plant on Thursday temporarily lost all of its off-site electrical power from Ukraine’s national grid, forcing it to rely on on-site backup power and renewing concerns about its safe operation.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that it did not appear that the plant’s safety systems had suffered significant damage, but warned that could change quickly if the conflict escalates.

“That could spell disaster if emergency measures fail,” he wrote in an analysis of the current situation at the plant.

But he said a visit to the plant by experts from the International Atomic Energy Association could help begin the implementation measures that would lessen the risk of an “entirely preventable” disaster.