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Russian servicemen stand on the road toward the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in territory under Russian military control, southern Ukraine, on May 1.The Associated Press

Dmytro Orlov knows all too well how dangerous the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southern Ukraine has become.

Until the end of April, Mr. Orlov was the mayor of Energodar, the city next to the power plant. He left after Russian soldiers took control of the city and ordered him to co-operate.

Now based in nearby Zaporizhzhia, Mr. Orlov is overseeing humanitarian relief and evacuation efforts. He is in regular contact with residents and said many are terrified at the recent escalation of shelling near the nuclear plant.

“In the last three weeks, the situation has gotten worse in the city and around the nuclear station in particular,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “No one is calm because explosions are heard all the time from near the city and near the nuclear station. Some people are panicking and trying to evacuate from the city.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant opened in 1995 and is one of the largest nuclear power stations in the world. Its six reactors produce a total of 5.7 gigawatts of energy, enough to power four million homes. Mr. Orlov said that about 11,000 people work at the plant and it is by far the largest employer in Energodar, which had a population of 53,000 before the war.

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There have been fears about the safety of the station since March, when Russian soldiers occupied Energodar, which is located along the south bank of the Dnieper river, about 120 kilometres from Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian staff have continued to run the plant, but only two reactors remain operational and their power production has been cut in half.

Some 500 Russian troops are believed to have taken up positions inside the station and have been using it to strike Ukrainian targets across the river. The Ukrainian military has increased its activity in the area, but officials insist they have not targeted the plant.

Nonetheless, the increased shelling by both sides in recent days has made the situation extremely tense. Over the weekend, explosions damaged a power line and a spent nuclear fuel storage facility. However, Ukrainian officials said none of the reactors had been damaged and radiation levels in the area remained stable.

Ukraine blames Russia for deliberately targeting the plant and attempting to blackmail the world by effectively holding the station hostage. Russia has claimed Ukrainian rockets hit areas near the station and briefly triggered an emergency shutdown.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes the peaceful use of atomic power, has warned about the potential for a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant. “Any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” he said in a statement.

Hryhoriy Plachkov, the former head of Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, echoed those concerns Tuesday and said this was the first time a nuclear power station had been caught up in a war. “This power plant never was constructed or planned or designed for military action being taken near it,” he said. “The presence of military personnel and equipment on the site just elevates the risk of an emergency situation.”

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Others have raised the spectre of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, when a reactor meltdown and explosion forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people and spewed radioactive material across Europe. The Zaporizhzhia plant is twice the size of the Chernobyl facility, but experts say its nuclear technology is more modern and the six reactors are housed in far stronger buildings than those at Chernobyl.

But any accident at Zaporizhzhia could still be catastrophic, argued Lala Tarapakina, an adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources.

“In the event of a disaster, the area of the potential exclusion zone will be up to 30,000 square kilometres,” she said Tuesday. That would be roughly 10 times the size of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is still in place. “At the same time, the area of potential contaminated territory is up to two million square kilometres, and the degree of contamination of other territories, of Ukraine and Europe, Russia and Belarus, will depend on the wind.”

Oleksandr Kharchenko, director of the Energy Industry Research Center, told a news briefing in Kyiv Tuesday that one of the immediate challenges was getting supplies to the plant to ensure it is run safely. The well-being of staff is also an issue, he said, and there have been reports that Russian soldiers have tortured some employees and forced others to work at gunpoint.

It’s also unclear who would be responsible if there were an accident. While the Russian military occupies the plant, it is run by Ukrainians. “There are no rules, no procedures to follow,” Mr. Kharchenko said. He added that if something did go wrong “it would be a problem for everyone from the Ural Mountains to Lisbon.”

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