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News brief: Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, heat wave issues, Brazil's Independence Day

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

U.N. inspectors have painted an alarming picture of conditions inside a damaged nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, the United Nations has once again called for both Russia and Ukraine to stop fighting around that particular nuclear plant.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt joins us now from southern Ukraine. Frank, what are the most worrisome things that inspectors found?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, A, terrible working conditions is one thing, and they said it made it more likely that workers could make dangerous mistakes. The plant has just 80 staff for its fire brigade. That's instead of the normal 150. Of course, this plant is really dangerous. It's been the subject of sporadic shelling back since early - I think early August. There was a case back last month where an employee was injured in an artillery barrage, and he happened to be at the time near a spent nuclear fuel building. And also, the concern - the big one, of course - is repeated damage to these external power lines that we've been talking a lot about. They're crucial to running the pumps that push water to cool the nuclear reactor core to prevent, of course, a meltdown.

MARTINEZ: OK, anything encouraging that inspectors may have found?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there was one, I thought, and they said that even without power, the inspectors say that the plant still has a lot of diesel fuel to run emergency generators. Normally, they would have enough for, say, 10 days, A. They've used some of that because they did lose power at one point. But I think the hope is that they would have enough for at least a number of days to keep the nuclear reactor core cool and figure out either some kind of other solution or, of course, in the worst-case scenario, a big evacuation.

MARTINEZ: All right, how have Ukraine and Russia responded to the report?

LANGFITT: Well, President Zelenskyy said yesterday that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations organization, needs more power to actually enforce its findings. But of course, this is just a U.N. agency, and this is - we're talking about a war zone. Now, at the National Security Council, the Russian representative, he mischaracterized the report, the details of which I was just talking about, and said it actually praised the Russians for keeping the plant safe, which is definitely not true. Both sides, of course, as we've been reporting, have blamed each other for the shelling. But the Russians say that they've given data to the U.N. that shows that the Ukrainians are behind it, and they want the U.N. to say this very specifically. This is what the representative at the security council said through a translator.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We regret that this source of shelling is not directly named. We do understand your position as the head of an international regulator, but in the current situation, it's very important to call things by their name.

MARTINEZ: Frank, how far are you from the plant? And what's the reaction where you are to the inspectors' findings?

LANGFITT: Yeah, A, I think about 65 miles west. I'm in the city of Kryvyi Rih. And the concern, of course, would be if there's a meltdown - radioactive clouds coming this way and maybe going to lots of other cities. When I was talking to people this morning, they really weren't paying that much attention to the U.N. report. And they say when this happens, they're just going to deal with it. I was talking outside a barbershop to a guy named Sergey Daravic (ph), and here is what he had to say.

SERGEY DARAVIC: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: "For a long time, I viewed the U.N. as impotent. Except for expressing deep concern, they don't really say anything," he says. Then he goes on. "We're concerned about the overall Russian aggression and the threat to our statehood. The nuclear plant is just a small detail. I'm not that concerned about it." So, you know, it's remarkable. After seven months of war, A, people look at the potential of a meltdown, which would have been unthinkable, you know, back in, say, January, as just another problem here.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Ukraine. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, A.

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MARTINEZ: The Western U.S. is baking under a historic, life-threatening heat wave.

MARTIN: Yeah, and the city of Sacramento on Tuesday hit an astonishing 116 degrees, and California narrowly averted rolling electrical blackouts.

MARTINEZ: Nathan Rott, a member of NPR's climate team, is on the line in Southern California. Nathan, I live in Los Angeles, and yesterday, right around 6 p.m., I was in a deep sleep. My phone blasted me awake because it seemed like California's power grid was really going to be pushed to its limits.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Oh, no. Yeah, I mean, and it very nearly was. State officials were warning residents to prepare for rolling blackouts all day as - and especially as electrical demand climbed to an all-time high in the afternoon. But public messaging, including that very jarring push alert - which, yeah, it kind of surprised me, too - urging people to conserve electricity, it seemed to have worked. You know, if you look at graphs of the state's power usage last night, you can see a dip in the hour after that alert was sent, which was enough for the state to avoid any widespread blackouts.

MARTINEZ: And I understand, though, this heat is contributing to some wildfires that are near where you are. Tell us about those.

ROTT: Yeah, so we're in peak fire season, as you well know, here in California. And there are a number of blazes here and in other parts of the West. In Southern California, near where we are, the most notable is near the town of Hemet. Temperatures there were around 107 degrees yesterday. That fire's killed at least two people and is threatening thousands of homes. Another major fire is threatening homes in the mountain town of Big Bear. Remember, A, this is all happening on a landscape that is dealing with a megadrought, the driest period, scientists say, in at least 1,200 years. So it's extremely dangerous conditions for firefighters and for the people that are living in these fire-prone landscapes.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, I never get used to smelling the fire in the air all day. Nate, you're a member of NPR's climate team. Is it fair to say these conditions, fires and extreme heat, are climate change?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, I'd say it's more than fair. Research has already shown that the megadrought we're talking about, which is threatening the supply for tens of millions of people in the West, is being fueled by human-caused climate change. A study published a couple of weeks ago by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington found that the number of days with dangerous heat, which they defined as heat and humidity combined feeling like 103 degrees or above, those are expected to double in North America by the year 2050. And it's even worse closer to the equator. Here's the lead author of that study, Lucas Vargas Zeppetello.

LUCAS VARGAS ZEPPETELLO: It's really important to understand that, you know, the thresholds that we have in our sort of memory banks for extreme weather, those thresholds are not going to be meaningful - you know, they're already not meaningful now - because things that were previously considered very extreme are going to be much, much more frequent.

ROTT: And that's something, he said, that we're already seeing. I mean, this heat wave is a good example - the ones that Europe experienced earlier this summer, which led to massive wildfires there; the heat waves in India. And Zeppetello said that this research is clear that it's only going to get worse if climate-warming emissions aren't cut immediately.

MARTINEZ: All right, Nate, How much longer is this California heat wave going to last?

ROTT: It's not over yet. Forecasters say unusually hot temperatures are expected across much of the West through the end of the week. So officials are saying conserve electricity. Check in on your neighbors. It's important to remember that heat waves are the deadliest natural disaster in the world. So people need to be careful.

MARTINEZ: And drink some water if you can find any. NPR's Nathan Rott. Thanks a lot.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you, A.

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MARTINEZ: From high temperatures in California to a heated election campaign in South America.

MARTIN: It is independence day in Brazil, and the country's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, plans to use today's celebration to flaunt his close ties to the armed forces. This comes amid growing concerns there that Bolsonaro will just refuse to leave office if he loses next month's presidential election.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined by John Otis, who covers Brazil for NPR. John, what's going to happen today?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, first, Bolsonaro plans to attend a military parade in Brasilia, which is the capital, and that's a rather normal annual event, but then he's going to do something really out of the ordinary. He's going to fly down to Rio de Janeiro, where he'll give a speech on the iconic Copacabana Beach, and that event is going to feature a naval flotilla, an air show with paratroopers jumping out of aircraft and also cannons that are going to fire off a 21-gun salute.

MARTINEZ: So it kind of sounds like a militarized campaign beach party.

OTIS: Yeah, I mean, it's - what it really is, is kind of a last-ditch campaign stunt. All the polls in Brazil are showing Bolsonaro trailing his left-wing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is a former president. So Bolsonaro is trying to do something really dramatic to turn the tables and kind of reset his campaign. You might compare it to former U.S. President Donald Trump using Mount Rushmore as a 4th of July backdrop for his 2020 reelection campaign. Bolsonaro has also been busy promoting today's event in TV spots like this one.

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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Now, in it, he's urging Brazilians to fill up Copacabana Beach today to have this big, big show of force.

MARTINEZ: So why has the event caused so much controversy in Brazil?

OTIS: Well, mainly it's because Bolsonaro has been really coy about whether he would actually leave office if he loses in the October 2 election, and the signs are not very good. He's claimed that the polls are wrong, that Brazil's electronic voting system is riddled with fraud and that the military should oversee the vote count. Now, if Bolsonaro does lose and if Bolsonaro tries to cling to power, he would very likely lean on the military for support. Bolsonaro is, you may recall, a former army captain. His government is filled with ex-military officers. And he's several times declared that only God can take me from the presidency. So if Bolsonaro manages to draw massive crowds today out on Copacabana Beach, that could be interpreted by the military as swelling popular support for the president to stay in power even if he loses.

MARTINEZ: But would then Brazil's military actually support an extreme move by Bolsonaro?

OTIS: Well, I mean, that's the big question. He'd likely get support from some military officers, but it's more doubtful that, you know, the entire top brass would go along with a full-fledged coup. Authorities right now in Brazil are on heightened alert for any sort of attack on Brazil's democracy. They recently raided the homes of several Brazilian businessmen who, in text messages, appeared to be supporting a military coup. But all that said, you also have to remember that Brazil does have a long history of military coups, and it was ruled by a military dictatorship as recently as 1985.

MARTINEZ: John Otis covers Brazil for NPR. John, as always, thanks.

OTIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.