The Russian general in charge of a key nuclear power station in eastern Ukraine could “weaponise” the site, devastating the country and beyond, a leading military expert has told The National.
Gen Valery Vasiliev, who commands Russia’s radiation, chemical and biological troops, has allegedly threatened to detonate explosives at the Zaporizhzhia plant if attacked.
With Moscow on the back foot in the face of Ukrainian advances, particularly in the south towards Crimea, its army could blow up the plant causing a significant radiation cloud that would cause considerable damage to Ukraine and Europe were it to drift to the west, said nuclear expert Hamish de Breton-Gordon.
“Gen Vasiliev claims to have weaponised the nuclear power station wiring it for explosives but if he's wired them up inside to blow up, then the chances for meltdown and contamination is extremely high,” he said.
“They’ve got six reactors at Zaporizhzhia, so in the worst case the contamination could be absolutely massive and catastrophic. It would be less harmful to use a tactical nuclear weapon.”
With the winds in the region generally blowing from the east, it is possible the Russians would make the judgment that a radiation cloud would sweep westwards over Ukraine and into Europe.
Gen Vasiliev reportedly told his troops he would detonate the site if attacked. “We have mined all important facilities of the Zaporizhzhia,” he said. “And we do not hide this from the enemy and have warned them. The enemy knows that the plant will either be Russian or nobody's.”
Gen Vasiliev is understood to have served in Syria, where Russian troops are said to have supported chemical attacks on civilian and military targets, particularly in Aleppo.
It is feared the Russians could also use Zaporizhzhia as a nuclear device without having to deploy an actual weapon, pinning the blame on sabotage or accident. Moscow has allegedly been running “false-flag” operations by claiming the Ukrainians themselves have been shelling their own nuclear plant.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of turning the nuclear power plant into a “battlefield.”
“The Russian occupation army is using the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant for terror and armed provocation,” he said “They do everything to maximise the risk of a nuclear disaster and lie to the whole world that someone else is allegedly to blame.”
It is understood that scientists at Britain’s leading nuclear research station, Aldermaston, are hurriedly creating computer modelling on the potential fallout from a meltdown.
International concern is growing over the potential human and ecological disaster from a nuclear incident that could prove more devastating than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown of a single reactor.
UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres has called for a withdrawal of all troops around the plant.
“The facility must not be used as part of any military operation,” he said. “Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area.”
The US backed his call and under secretary Bonnie Jenkins told the UN Security Council on Thursday that a visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency “cannot wait any longer”.
The IAEA has requested that Russia and Ukraine co-operate, so inspectors can travel to assess the plant. A UN spokesman said it was doing everything possible to allow inspectors in. “There's a war going on and we're talking about a nuclear power plant in the middle of a battlefield,” he said, highlighting the potentially precarious situation and the tricky logistics involved.
Mr de Breton-Gordon argued that Zaporizhzhia should become a specially protected site, similar to Ukraine’s churches and mosques. “Unless this problem is sorted out, all the others are almost irrelevant,” said the former general, who previously commanded the British Army’s nuclear defence forces.
“We know that [President] Putin and others have already threatened the use of nuclear so that is why we're very concerned.”