KYIV -- Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) has become the latest tool in Russia's arsenal of blackmail and terror as it continues to wage its war in Ukraine.
Although the ZNPP was reconnected to Ukraine's electricity grid Friday (August 26), according to Energoatom, the national operator, observers say the development is only a small respite in the ongoing crisis.
The ZNPP was disconnected from the Ukrainian grid on Thursday, sparking massive sparked global concern about a nuclear incident.
Kyiv suspects Moscow intends to divert power from the ZNPP to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russian troops in 2014.
"The actions of the invaders caused a complete disconnection of the ZNPP from the power grid -- the first in the history of the plant," Energoatom said on Telegram Thursday.
The plant -- Europe's largest nuclear facility -- has been occupied by Moscow's troops since the opening weeks of the war, which began on February 24.
The ZNPP was disconnected from the Ukrainian grid because ash pit fires in an adjacent thermal power plant twice severed a power line, said Energoatom.
The three other power lines "were earlier damaged during terrorist attacks" by Russian forces, the operator said.
As a result, two of the plant's six reactors still functioning "were disconnected from the network".
Such disconnections could have far-reaching and devastating consequences, say observers.
The plant needs power simply to operate, according to Tetyana Tymochko, director of the All-Ukrainian Environmental League.
The ZNPP has diesel generators for disconnections like Thursday's, "but it will need sufficient diesel fuel to supply the plant's own long-term needs and to cool the nuclear fuel", she said.
"Once all power sources are lost, the nuclear fuel will begin to melt, which may release radioactive substances into the environment," she said.
In such a case, cesium-137, a common product of nuclear fission, could contaminate the soil and Ukraine's main waterway, the Dnipro river, and from there spread to the Black Sea.
"If the Russian occupiers trigger an accident at the [ZNPP], then the area of the exclusion zone may be 30,000 sq km, and potentially contaminated areas may cover 2 million sq km," said Tymochko.
"The [ZNPP] has up to 18,000 fuel collectors in six reactors and in the spent fuel storage facility, which is 10 times more than what Chernobyl had," she said. "Almost the entire Zaporizhzhia province would be uninhabitable for hundreds of years."
An incident could affect approximately 1 million people, with a death toll up to 10 times larger than after Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear disaster in 1986.
"It would be a man-made disaster on a global scale," she said.
In recent weeks, "Kyiv has repeatedly accused Russian forces of storing heavy weaponry inside the complex and using it as cover to launch attacks," CNN reported August 19.
Footage published by CNN that day showed Russian troops storing military vehicles, including trucks, in a mechanical room near one of the reactors.
More than Russian military vehicles are deployed on the grounds of the ZNPP, according to Olga Kosharna, an independent analyst of nuclear energy and safety who previously worked at Ukraine's State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation.
Having set up firing positions at the plant itself, Russians are shelling Ukrainian cities, particularly Nikopol, from there, she said.
"Russia is using the Zaporizhzhia plant as a nuclear shield. From there, they fire at cities, at the Ukrainian military. They know that Ukrainian soldiers will not return fire at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe," said Kosharna.
To accomplish the diversion of the ZNPP's output to Crimea, the Russians have brought in engineers from Rosatom, the state-owned operator of Russia's nuclear energy complex, said Vladimir Omelchenko, director of energy programmes at the Razumkov Centre, a Ukrainian non-governmental public policy think-tank.
In order to switch over the ZNPP, it must first be severed from the Ukrainian power grid, Omelchenko said before the disconnection on Thursday.
While an accident at the plant is unlikely, the Russians could deliberately sabotage it, said Omelchenko.
"By capturing the plant, Russia became a nuclear terrorist. This is the first time in history that an aggressor's armed forces have seized a nuclear facility," he said.
"We cannot make concessions to terrorists," said Omelchenko. "The more we yield, the greater the threat."
"If we take the last month and a half to two months, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is losing the information war," said Mykola Davidyuk, a political scientist. "And he is losing even more on the battlefield."
"And through blackmail, he seeks to influence Ukraine and the world -- either with grain or with a nuclear power plant."
"This is global terrorism -- the Russians' style," he said, adding that an incident at the plant could affect about 40 nations. "
"Everyone should worry, not just Ukraine. Radiation doesn't understand geographic location, and it moves with the wind," said Davidyuk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia's actions around the plant as a menace.
"Russia has put Ukrainians as well as all Europeans one step away from radiation disaster," he said Thursday in his nightly address.
US President Joe Biden, in a telephone call with Zelenskyy, called for Russia to relinquish full control of the ZNPP and let in United Nations nuclear inspectors, the White House said.
"No country should turn a nuclear power plant into an active war zone, and we oppose any Russian efforts to weaponise or divert energy from the plant," US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.