. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reactor Shutdown Sparks Panic

A minor incident at the Balakovskaya nuclear power plant created widespread panic in Saratov and nearby regions, with people clearing iodine off drugstore shelves and several being rushed to the hospital with symptoms of iodine poisoning.

Reactor No. 2 at the Balakovskaya nuclear power plant, located outside the Saratov region city of Balakov some 900 kilometers southeast of Moscow, shut down Thursday after a pipe burst, but there was no radiation leak, the Federal Nuclear Power Agency said in a statement Friday.

However, the incident, which was first reported Friday morning, sparked a panic after Saratov radio stations reported the news along with advice to residents on how to protect themselves from radiation, Gazeta.ru reported. Greenpeace activists then hit the streets in regional cities and towns to distribute leaflets explaining how to protect oneself from a radiation leak.

Some local residents said they saw a white cloud above the plant and did not believe the authorities' assurances, suspecting a cover-up like the one that followed the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Russian media reported.

"I tell you that there will not be a second Chernobyl. It is not those times anymore when you hide information," Igor Maly, head of the local branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, said on NTV television.

Sergei Kiriyenko, President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Volga Federal District, made a quick visit late Friday to Saratov to try to calm fears.

But rumors spread quickly throughout the day that authorities were trying to hush up the danger and were informally advising schools to let children go home early. Some kindergartens rushed to seal their windows.

Adding to the speculation was the unusual appearance of several generals and about a dozen government vehicles with black military license plates, Kommersant reported Saturday. The officials were there as part of a regularly planned Emergency Situations Ministry exercise.

Worried Saratov residents cleared drugstore shelves of iodine and more expensive iodine-based medicines such as sea kale and vitamins, RIA-Novosti and the Regnum news agency reported. Some vendors at outdoor markets started selling iodine to panicked customers at 10 rubles a drop, the Newsinfo.ru web site said.

At least seven people checked into Saratov hospitals with symptoms of iodine poisoning.

"The whole city lost their heads," Anna Vinogradova, head of Saratov's department of environmental protection, told Kommersant. "All the telephone lines were busy. People were telling each other to drink vodka, take iodine and -- no matter what -- not to use public drinking water."

Reports of panic also poured in from the neighboring Tambov, Penza, Ulyanovsk and Nizhny Novgorod regions as well as Astrakhan and Rostov, even though the two regions do not border Saratov.

The nuclear power plant's reactor was restarted early Saturday and was running normally, Interfax reported.

Russia has 10 nuclear power plants with a total of 30 nuclear reactors, which are regularly shut down for repairs or due to minor accidents.