Kateryna survived the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The 68-year-old pensioner still has thyroid problems to this day. Now she is preparing with the other residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia for a possible accident at the nearby nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.
While the world is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team of experts at the facility, people in Zaporizhia are queuing for iodine tablets.
The area around the power plant has come under repeated shelling in recent weeks, for which Russia and Ukraine blame each other. The IAEA mission, headed by Rafael Grossi, is to check the condition of the six reactors in the coming days.
At the beginning of August, Grossi warned of the “very real danger of a nuclear catastrophe”.
Kateryna picked up her iodine tablets at a school along with dozens of other local residents. They are designed to mitigate the health risks of radiation in the event of a disaster.
“The threat was very great, but we survived,” Kateryna recalls of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Now we have six reactors, not one,” she points out.
The city of Zaporizhia is about 50 kilometers as the crow flies from the nuclear power plant of the same name and has been occupied by Russian troops since the beginning of March. There is ongoing fighting in the area.
In addition to shelling the power plant, Kyiv accuses Moscow of using the facility to store heavy weapons and of stationing 500 soldiers there. However, the Kremlin insists that it only has security personnel on site.
Last week, for the first time in its 40-year history, the power plant was briefly disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid after the last functioning power line was shot at. The Ukrainian nuclear agency Energoatom warned that there was a risk of “radioactive substances being released”.
Should there be a serious incident at the nuclear power plant, radioactive substances would be released into the atmosphere, including radioactive iodine. If inhaled, this can increase the risk of thyroid cancer – an effect observed after Chernobyl.
Taking non-radioactive iodine tablets is intended to prevent the radioactive iodine from building up in the thyroid gland so that it is excreted naturally through the urine.
Around 13 schools distributed tablets around the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. According to doctors, they should be distributed to everyone living within a 50-kilometer radius of the facility. So far, according to official information, more than 5,000 residents of the city of Zaporizhia have collected their pills, including more than 1,500 children.
Elena Karpenko, a nurse at Zaporizhia Children’s Hospital, explains: “The pill is taken in case of danger, when the alarm is sounded.”
At the weekend, rescue services in Zaporizhia practiced evacuations and decontamination of radioactive dust. The city has now stockpiled two tons of a special decontamination solution. In the event of a disaster, two sirens will sound to warn residents: a first alarm will be followed 24 hours later by a second.