Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said the ecological disaster triggered by the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam has become a global problem as severely contaminated waters flow into the Black Sea.
The Ukrainian president said the flood waters raging through the lower Dnipro River valley brought with them sewage, oil, chemicals and possibly anthrax from animal burial sites.
“At least two anthrax burial places are in the temporarily occupied territories,” Zelenskiy said through an interpreter in an online discussion with environmental activists. “What is happening to those sites we do not know yet.”
Kyiv has accused Russian forces of blowing up the dam on Tuesday morning and thereby committing ecocide. As well as the 100,000 people affected downstream, Zelinskiy said 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) of forests had been flooded, and 20,000 animals and 10,000 birds were “under threat of imminent death”.
“Altogether 2 million living beings are in danger,” Zelenskiy said, warning that as the contaminated water spreads, so would the environmental devastation.
“The poisoning and contamination coming from the flooding area goes to the groundwater almost immediately, poisoning rivers and then the water basin of the Black Sea,” he said. “So it’s not happening somewhere else. It is all interrelated in the world.”
Zelenskiy was speaking amid growing concerns over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, about 125 miles (200km) upstream from the dam. The plant has drawn on the Kakhova reservoir to cool its reactor cores and spent fuel, but the reservoir is now rapidly draining into the lower Dnipro.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said there is no immediate risk to the plant because it has water reserves, particularly a large cooling pond.
However, a report by the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) has said that earlier studies suggested the dyke around the cooling pond could collapse under the pressure of the water in it if the depth of the reservoir on the other side of the dyke dipped below 10 metres. It is currently below 13 metres and falling.
Karine Herviou, the IRSN’s deputy director general for nuclear safety, said that because all six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant had been shut down some months ago as a result of fighting in the area, the plant’s cooling needs were limited and in an emergency could be met by other means.
“If the dyke is destroyed as a result of the water pressure, there are other means to replenish the spray ponds, like pump trucks bringing water from the Dnipro or other water basin located nearby,” Herviou said.
However, nuclear experts warned the safety of the plant would then be extremely fragile. Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear energy corporation, said the destruction of the dam meant the occupied Zaporizhzhia plant could also be under threat of Russian sabotage.
“The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is heavily mined – both the interior and the access roads to it,” he said.
The relief effort on the Ukrainian-held right bank of the Dnipro continued on Thursday, as the official death toll rose to six. One person was killed and two injured as displaced people and relief workers came under artillery fire from the Russian side of the river.
On Wednesday, Zelenskiy had criticised the UN and the Red Cross for failing to support the flood relief effort. On Thursday evening, he thanked international organisations for their help on the right bank but said they still had no presence in the Russian-occupied area where people were still trapped.
As Ukraine struggled to contain the damage of the dam collapse on Thursday, fighting was intensifying along the frontline with Russian occupation forces. In particular, a substantial Ukrainian force, reportedly including western tanks and other equipment, appeared to be making a concerted push south of the city of Zaporizhzhia towards a Russian logistics hub in the town of Tokmak. The US press quoted unnamed US and Ukrainian officials as saying that Kyiv’s long-awaited counteroffensive had begun, but a spokesperson for the Ukrainian general staff said: “We have no such information.”
Ihor Syrota, the head of Ukraine’s hydro power corporation Ukrhydroenergo, which oversees the Kakhova dam, said the left bank would have to be liberated before reconstruction work could begin, but plans were already being drawn up in anticipation.
“Water is continually flowing over it and destroying the foundation. Only when the water has calmed will we be able to see the extent of the destruction,” Syrota told the Guardian. He thought that would take 10 days.
He said the next step would be to build a 15 metre-high buffer dam upstream of the ruined hydroelectric station so that work could start on building a new one.
“It will take us four months to make the [buffer dam],” he said. “But we can start the work only after the liberation of this territory.”
Syrota dismissed suggestions that the dam could have been destroyed as result of partial damage that led to catastrophic structural failure, calling them Russian propaganda.
“The plant was designed to withstand a nuclear strike,” Syrota said. “To destroy the plant from the outside, at least three aircraft bombs, each of 500kg, would have had to be dropped on the same spot. The station was blown up from the inside.”
He added: “In October 2022, the Russians kicked all the workers out of the station, and from then the facility produced no energy. It became just a fortification for the Russian military. They brought hundreds of kilograms of explosives there. Ukraine reported last year that the station was mined. The Russians were just waiting for right day to blow it up.”