It sounds like a doomsday nightmare: Europe’s largest nuclear power plant stuck in the middle of a war zone, now wired with explosives ready to spread a radiological catastrophe across the continent.

Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been a constant source of dread since it was captured by Russia in the early days of its invasion in March last year. A drumbeat of warnings from Kyiv and Moscow has grown in recent weeks, crescendoing late Tuesday with each side accusing the other of planning an imminent attack designed to frame its warring rival.

The increasingly drastic warnings have fueled rising concern among residents in southeastern Ukraine and beyond — not least given the destruction of the huge dam that had previously been a source of similar alarm and accusations. But some experts told NBC News that the risk of a widespread radiation leak was low.

“It is actually quite difficult to arrange a significant reactive incident here,” said Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. “Even if you try to blow it up, I don’t think you could spread” the radiation beyond a few hundred yards.

‘New evil?’

Ukraine has warned for months that Russia might try to blow up the nuclear plant. But rarely have these warnings been as specific as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s late Tuesday, when he said Russia had placed “objects resembling explosives” on the roof — perhaps intending to blame an attack on Ukraine.

“It is the responsibility of everyone in the world to stop it,” he said, his latest appeal for more assistance from allies. “No one can stand aside as radiation affects everyone.”

The Kremlin has presented its own version of events.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Wednesday that the Russian-controlled plant was at risk of “sabotage” by Ukraine. The deputy adviser at the Russian energy giant Rosenergoatom, Renat Karchaa, said Ukraine was planning to strike the plant with a tactical ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear waste-filled warhead, Russia’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.

NBC News has not verified the claims of either side.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has issued regular warnings about the danger of fighting around a nuclear plant. It said in a statement Friday that partial inspections had revealed no evidence of mines or other explosives, but that it had not been granted access to the whole site.

The IAEA says it has been given partial access to inspect the plant, shown here last month.AFP – Getty Images

This part of the world doesn’t need to imagine what nuclear catastrophe looks like.

Around 340 miles northwest of Zaporizhzhia, the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 still remains the worst of its kind on record.

Some 200,000 people were evacuated, radioactive material was blown across the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists say a 19-mile exclusion zone may not be safe for 24,000 years, the half-life of the plutonium-239 released. Though officially fewer than 50 people died, the meltdown resulted in a “far higher than normal” rate of thyroid cancer among children in the area, according to the IAEA.

Comparisons are inevitable then, particularly given that Zaporizhzhia is almost twice the size of Chernobyl and finds itself in the midst of a modern land war.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe's biggest, relies in large part on water from the now-emptying reservoir at the Kakhovka dam.
Ukrainian emergency workers, such as this person clad in protective gear last week, have been training in the event of an incident at the nuclear plant.Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Many in eastern Ukraine have felt increasing panic this week, fueled by a fervent rumor mill on the popular Telegram messaging app, which is being checked throughout the night by some residents.

The country’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Wednesday that emergency services across four regions had being doing days of extra training to cope with “a possible terrorist attack” on the plant.

These fears were hardly tempered last week when Russian-installed local government officials said they had evacuated 1,600 people, including 660 children, from the area around the plant.

The area has also already seen what happens when a colossal piece of vital infrastructure is destroyed.

Last month, further down the Dnieper River, the Kakhovka dam burst, apparently following an explosion, flooding homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee while threatening an “ecological catastrophe.”

Zelenskyy himself said the muted international reaction to this — he blames Russia but his allies have not publicly apportioned blame — “may incite the Kremlin to commit new evil.”

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