An alarming tug of war around a Ukrainian nuclear power plant

A view shows the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant from the city of Nikopol, in the midst of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine on November 7, 2022 (Reuters) (VALENTYN OGIRENKO /)

Looting a fridge is easy; just load it on a truck. Looting a nuclear power plant is much more complicated and dangerous, as the marauders of Vladimir putin. In March they launched a reckless shootout to seize Zaporizhzhyain the south of Ukrainethe largest nuclear facility in Europe. They captured her, and now Russia claim your property. By sheer luck, the bombing did not cause a nuclear accident.

Since then, the Russians have tried, through intimidation, sabotage and violence, to exert technical and administrative control of the plant, with only partial success.

Zaporizhzhya usually supplies 20% of the electricity of Ukraine, but, being close to the front line, its six reactors have been stopped since September. Now there are some 500 Russian soldiers on the spot, with its armored vehicles hidden in the turbine halls and in underground bunkers designed to house personnel in the event of a nuclear accident. There are more garrisons in the nearby occupied city of enerhodarwhere most of the Ukrainian employees of the plant and their families live.

“The Russians use the plant as a military base,” he says Petro kotinPresident of energoatomthe Ukrainian nuclear power company, and former director of the facility Zaporizhzhya. “They understand that no one from Ukraine will bomb it, no one will attack the plant directly. It is a safe place to store your military vehicles and personnel.”

Since the nuclear plant no longer generates power, it needs to bring it in to maintain the cooling systems for its nuclear fuel, which remains hot even though the reactors have been shut down. But power to the plant has been repeatedly cut, causing five complete blackouts, the last from November 3-5. Standby generators have been used, which Mr. kotin it qualifies as the “last line of defence”, but diesel stocks are limited.

The Russians have wanted to connect the plant Zaporozhye to the network of crimea they control, to steal Ukrainian electricity. But they have not been able to do so due to damage to electrical substations caused by the fighting. “Right now, it seems that they are not going to make any more attempts to reconnect.”, says Mr. kotin. “They’re stuck.”

Even if the reactors were connected to the Russians’ grid, they would have to be restarted. Four of the plant’s reactors are “cold” shutdown and two are “hot” shutdown. which means they are still running, but at much lower heat than usual, capable of generating steam to heat the many buildings at the plant, and even some for parts of the nearby city, but not at high enough pressures to drive the turbines that would normally generate electricity.

As outside temperatures begin to dip below freezing, more heat is needed. Another reactor will have to be heated to produce more steam (although not energy). Ukrainian regulators have authorized it; the Russians, who also have their own nuclear technicians on the ground, have said no.

The roughly 3,000 Ukrainian employees still at the plant have been working under the constant intimidation that comes with the occupation.. “To compound the situation, they are also now faced with conflicting instructions on the operation of the plant,” he said. raphael grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a recent announcement. The IAEA has four international members in the plant. “At least we have information from this independent source,” said Mr. kotin, “but they can’t do anything with these Russian actions. They are just observers.”

Ukrainian staff have been prohibited from communicating with the Ukrainian authorities (who continue to pay their salaries) and are being intimidated into signing a contract with a newly created Russian energy agency in the newly occupied territory. The Russians offer high salaries and bonuses to those who sign, but Mr. kotin He says only about 200 have done so.

It may interest you: Rafael Grossi, director of the IAEA: “The situation in Zaporizhzhia is very precarious, the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe is growing”

In recent months, the Russians have kidnapped three senior officials; two of them were released after several days, but are still in their home enerhodar busy, what Mr. kotin describes it as “a very bad psychological state.” When the Ukrainian authorities tried to contact one of them, his family told them not to call again as he needed time to recover. hey Osheka, in charge of the operational maintenance of the plant, has been missing for more than a month. “We don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said Mr. kotin. “Is stopped. We hope that he will be released. he could be tortured”.

The mayor of enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, claims that around 1,000 people, plant employees and residents of his town, have been detained by the Russians since the occupation began last March. Some have been released, traumatized after being tortured. Others have been killed. In May, for example, the Russians shot an engineer five times at his home. He was allowed to be evacuated to Ukrainian territory, where doctors saved his life. Some 70 people are still in the hands of the Russians.. The mayor says the Russians have refused to include these civilians in regular prisoner exchange negotiations, “it doesn’t matter, they ignore all these processes”.

In the city, conditions are tense and bleak. Only about 15,000 people remain, mostly pensioners who cannot go out and factory employees, of a population of 53,000 inhabitants that existed before the war. “There is a partial lack of electricity and the water supply is interrupted almost constantly,” says Mr. Orlov. Municipal services have continued to function, but since September regular convoys bringing food, medicine and other supplies from Ukrainian territory have been stopped by the occupying forces.

Mr. Orlov is now out of enerhodar, but remains in contact with the residents despite the danger they face if they are caught talking to the Ukrainian authorities. Residents report that the city’s soldiers have taken up residence in empty apartments and often walk around in civilian clothes. The Russians, says the mayor, avoid bringing heavy armored vehicles into the city because they know that the residents will relay their position to the Ukrainian forces. “The partisan movement is working”, says Mr. Orlov. “But understand that I can’t talk about it.”

Mr. grossiof IAEA, has tried to negotiate a 30 km demilitarized zone around the plant; but after the withdrawal of the nearby Kherson, the Russian deal seems unlikely given the strategic importance of the reactors. Over the weekend, dozens of explosions were recorded due to bombardments in the surroundings of the plant; Some buildings were damaged, but apparently no systems or equipment critical to the safety of the plant were damaged. “The situation there is becoming unpredictable”, says Mr. kotin. “They probably fear a new Ukrainian breakthrough.”

Mr. Orlov states that the people of the city tell him that “the situation is changing, the russians are robbing everyone, looting. They take everything they see.” Perhaps, he thinks, the Russians are beginning to realize that their time in enerhodar it’s ending.

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