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Russia allegedly tells nuclear power plant workers not to go to work Friday amid concerns of a planned incident

On Thursday, Russia threatened to shut down the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, warning that there was a risk of a human-made disaster due to alleged continued shelling by Ukraine.
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/ Source: Reuters

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Russia has told workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant not to show up to work Friday, Ukrainian military intelligence has told NBC News.

This comes amid allegations and speculation from both Russia and Ukraine that an incident is being planned Friday at the plant.

On Thursday, Russia threatened to shut down the plant, warning that there was a risk of a human-made disaster due to alleged continued shelling by Ukraine.

But Ukraine has a completely different story, according to Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate.

“There is new information, it arrived about half an hour ago, that for tomorrow, August 19, there is an order for the majority of the staff not to go to work,” Yusov said, speaking exclusively to NBC News.

“This is what the Russians told their people, primarily the employees of Rosatom,” he said, referring to the Russian nuclear agency.

He said that this might be evidence that Russia is preparing “large-scale provocations” at the power plant Friday.

“We do not rule out the possibility of massive Russian provocations on the territory of the ZNPP tomorrow. This is confirmed by their propaganda, information from our sources, and the behavior of the Russians at the station,” he added, referring to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Russia refused to confirm or deny whether any Rosatom personnel are stationed at Zaporizhzhia.

Earlier Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Ukraine and what it called its “U.S. handlers” of trying to stage a “minor accident” at the plant in southern Ukraine on Friday in order to blame Russia.

It said the “provocation” was timed to coincide with a visit to Ukraine by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and that it may involve a radiation leak.

Trading blame

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, the largest in Europe, was captured by Russia soon after it invaded Ukraine almost six months ago and has come under repeated shelling, with both Moscow and Kyiv trading blame.

Russia has repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of recklessly firing at the plant, while Ukraine says Russia is deliberately using the complex as a base to launch attacks against its population.

NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.

A senior Ukrainian official told Reuters that the simplest solution to the situation would be for Russian forces to withdraw from the plant, remove any munitions stored there and de-mine it.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters Thursday that Moscow was taking measures to ensure safety at the complex and denied it had deployed heavy weapons in and around the plant.

However the ministry said a shutdown of the plant may be attempted if Ukrainian forces continued shelling it. 

In a briefing, Igor Kirillov, head of Russia’s radioactive, chemical and biological defense forces, said the plant’s backup support systems had been damaged as a result of shelling.

Kirillov presented a slide, showing that in the event of an accident at the plant, radioactive material would cover Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

A Russian soldier guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. AP

Yevgeny Balitsky, head of the Russian-installed administration in the Zaporizhzhia region, said earlier there was a risk that shelling could damage the cooling system of the reactor complex and was quoted as saying the plant was operating with only one unit.

It is not clear how the plant will be shut down, but the ministry said two of the plant’s six units may be put into “cold reserve.” The plant accounts for one-fifth of Ukraine’s annual electricity production.

Guterres, who is set to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later Thursday, has called for a halt to all fighting near the plant.

“Russia is worried about the possibility of a disaster at the ZNPP. Russia’s Ministry of Defense laughs cynically,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, wrote on Twitter.

“There is a solution. You just need to take the [munitions] out of the halls, demine the buildings, release the plant’s personnel from cells, stop shelling [the southern city of] Nikopol from [the plant’s] territory and leave the station. It’s simple, isn’t it?”