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Radiation tablets are handed out near Ukrainian nuclear plant as fears of a leak mount

Pills were being distributed to people who live within a 30-mile radius of the plant, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration told NBC News. 

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Friday, amid fears that fighting around the complex could trigger a radiation leak or an even bigger catastrophe. 

The move came a day after the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily disconnected from the national power grid for the first time in its 40-year history, heightening fears of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.

The pills were being distributed to people who live within a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of the plant in Enerhodar, Volodymyr Marchuk, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration told NBC News. 

Recipients were being told not to take them preventatively, he said, adding that they were “being distributed in case of any future radiation leak, at which time the government would instruct people to take the tablets.”

Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine
Residents receive iodine tablets Friday at a distribution point in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.Andriy Andriyenko / AP

He did not say how many tablets were being distributed and who was receiving them, but in a separate post on his Telegram channel, Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov said that 25,000 tablets were delivered to the southern town from the regional reserve. 

He did not say whether they were going to be distributed, but he stressed that radiation levels at the plant and its surrounding areas were normal. 

Potassium iodine tablets can block one type of radioactive material and are used in nuclear emergencies to help protect the thyroid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Earlier Friday, the country’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said the plant was being safely powered through a repaired line from the power grid, a day after it was disconnected from the national power grid. There were no issues with the plant’s machinery or safety systems, it said.

It was later announced that the plant had been reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid and was producing enough electricity to meet the country’s needs. 

The plant has been occupied by Russian forces and run by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the 6-month-old war, and both sides have repeatedly accused each other of shelling the site.

Exactly what went wrong Thursday was unclear, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed Russian shelling for the damage in a late-night video address Thursday. He said catastrophe was averted only because the plant’s safety systems kicked in with backup power.

“The world must understand what a threat this is: If the diesel generators hadn’t turned on, if the automation and our staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would now be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” he said. 

“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster,” Zelenskyy added.

However, Russian-installed officials in the surrounding Zaporizhzhia region sought to play down the gravity of the situation. “There was just an emergency situation” that was handled by the plant’s safety systems, Alexander Volga, a Russian-installed official in the nearby town of Enerhodar, told the state news agency Tass on Friday.

NBC News has not verified either side’s claims.

As the accusations flew about the plant, Belarus’ authoritarian leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, said Friday that the country’s warplanes have been modified to carry nuclear weapons in line with an agreement with ally Russia.

Lukashenko said the upgrade followed his June meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who offered to make Belarusian combat aircraft nuclear-capable at Russian factories and to help train pilots.

“Do you think it was all blather?” Lukashenko said to reporters Friday. “All of it has been done.”