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Ukrainian nuclear plant reconnected to grid after Zelenskyy says Europe narrowly avoided disaster

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was back on the grid and supplying electricity to Ukraine on Friday, officials said, after it was disconnected for the first time in its 40-year history.

The world narrowly avoided a radiation disaster after a Russian-controlled nuclear plant was completely disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, was back on the grid and supplying electricity to Ukraine on Friday, officials said, a day after it was disconnected from the national power grid for the first time in its 40-year history.

Zelenskyy said in a late-night video address Thursday that after the last working line connecting it to Ukraine’s power grid was damaged by Russian shelling, it was only the plant’s safety systems kicking in with backup power that had averted catastrophe.

“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.

Russia blamed Ukraine for the incident. NBC News has not verified either side's claims.

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

It later announced that the plant was reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid and was producing electricity to meet the country’s needs. The agency hailed the plant’s staff as heroes who “tirelessly and firmly hold the nuclear and radiation safety of Ukraine and the whole of Europe on their shoulders.”

But authorities nonetheless began distributing iodine tablets to residents near the plant Friday in case of a radiation leak, amid mounting fears that the fighting around the complex could trigger a catastrophe, the Zaporizhzhia regional military administration confirmed to NBC News.

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.

Intense fighting around the site has spurred growing fears of a catastrophe. The two sides have traded blame for the attacks, with world leaders calling for a demilitarized zone around the nuclear complex while pushing for access for United Nations inspectors.

Any damage to the plant would be “suicide,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned earlier this month.

“It was potentially a very, very dangerous situation,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who led the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense forces known as CBRN in both the British army and NATO.

Cooling systems and other mechanisms that are essential to the safe operation of the reactors need power to run them, while emergency diesel generators are sometimes unreliable.

“The generators at Zaporizhzhia are in an unknown condition, thought to be not in great condition mainly because the Russians have occupied the site for six months, had not allowed inspectors in and maintenance has not been taking place as it should be,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “So we now have the safety mechanisms being run on generators, which we are not 100% certain are reliable.”

“Absolutely had those generators failed, we would then be in a serious position,” he added. 

Nuclear experts have raised concerns before about the risk the fighting could pose to the plant’s reactors and the silos of nuclear waste around it.

Ukraine and its international allies, including the United States, have been urging Russia to hand over control of the plant. Moscow captured the site in March and has controlled it since, although Ukrainian engineers still operate it.

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.”