Zaporizhzhia: Interior of Ukrainian power plant raises specter of nuclear disaster in Europe

Kyiv, Ukraine

Every day, Olga is transported by bus from her home in the Russian-occupied town of Enerhodar on the banks of the Dnipro River in southeastern Ukraine to the nearby town Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant where she works.

The plant, the largest such nuclear complex in Europe, is at the center of growing global concern after days of increased shelling sparked calls for international experts to visit the facility and heightened fears of a potential nuclear accident.

Kyiv has repeatedly accused Russian forces, which seized the plant in March, of stockpiling heavy weapons inside the complex and using them as cover to launch attacks, knowing that Ukraine cannot retaliate without risking hitting one of the plant’s six reactors – a mistake would be a disaster. Moscow, meanwhile, claimed Ukrainian troops were targeting the site. Both sides attempted to point fingers at the other for threatening nuclear terrorism.

For Olga and her Ukrainian colleagues who still work at the plant, the specter of nuclear disaster is not just a nightmare, it is a daily reality.

It’s “like sleeping and watching a dream,” she told CNN in a recent phone interview, describing the surreal and prolonged shock she experienced while working at the factory, which, although owned by Russian forces, is still mainly operated by Ukrainian technicians.

In the months following the capture of the nuclear facility, Ukrainian employees slowly began to return – performing tasks in partially destroyed rooms and only coming into contact with Russian soldiers when they passed through two checkpoints to enter the complex.

“After the occupation, only operational staff worked at the station. There were many broken and burned rooms and windows. Then they gradually started asking people to come to work for specific tasks,” said Olga, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

“Now the part of the staff that didn’t leave is working. About 35-40% of the workers left.

The reduction in staff and the resurgence of fighting make working conditions increasingly precarious.

Ukraine and Russia have again traded blame after renewed shelling around the plant on Thursday night, just hours after the United Nations called on both sides to cease military activities near the power plant , warning of the worst if they did not.

“Unfortunately, instead of a de-escalation, over the past few days there have been reports of new and deeply worrying incidents which could, if continued, lead to a catastrophe,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. said in a press release. “I urge the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and avoid any further deployment of forces or equipment to the site.”

Addressing a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, says that the recent attacks had knocked out parts of the plant, risking an “unacceptable” potential radiation leak and demanded that a team of experts be urgently granted access to the site, where the situation is “deteriorating very rapidly”.

A view of the Zaporizhzhia factory from Nikopol, across the Dnipro river.

“This is a serious hour, a serious hour, and the IAEA must be allowed to carry out its mission in Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible,” Grossi said.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power utility, on Thursday accused Russian forces of targeting a storage area for “radiation sources” and bombing a fire department near the plant. A day later, the company said in a statement on its Telegram account that the plant was operating “with the risk of violating radiation and fire safety standards”.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi said on Friday that there was “no adequate control” over the plant, and that the Ukrainian specialists who remained there were not allowed access to certain areas where they should be.

CNN is unable to confirm details provided by Energoatom or Monastyrskyi, but Grossi said parts of the plant were unusable. Olga also confirmed that some parts of the complex are inaccessible to Ukrainian personnel.

Russia continued to accuse Ukraine of being behind the attacks. A local Occupation Administration official, Vladimir Rogov, told Russia’s Rossiya 24 news agency on Friday that there was “constant damage” to the power plant’s transmission line and suggested that the resort might be ‘mothballed’ – with no explanation as to how this could happen.

Ukrainian authorities say Russian rockets fired from the nuclear power plant hit the town of Nikopol, on the right bank of the Dnipro, and surrounding neighborhoods over the past week. At least 13 people were killed in the shelling on Tuesday night, and several others were injured Wednesday and Thursday evening, including a 13-year-old girl, according to local officials.

A woman assesses the damage on a street in Nikopol, where residents say they live under a relentless barrage of rockets.

Many buildings in Nikopol were damaged due to Russian attacks, according to Ukrainian officials.

Over the past few months, Olga said she saw Russian military hardware arriving at the nuclear complex, although much of it is now hidden. “Initially there was material on the territory of the station, now there is even more,” she said, adding that employees are not allowed in the areas where it is stored.

But when she comes home from work, Russia’s firepower is clear, she said. “The horrors happen at night, they bombard the city.

“The incoming blow on the right bank (of the river) slams so much that the houses shake and the windows shake. It’s scary in the silence of the night when people are sleeping,” she added.

On the other side of the Dnipro, in Nikopol, the attacks now seem to be incessant.

From the window of her house near the city’s port, Oksana Miraevska can look across the water and see the incoming volley of shells.

“If something happens to the power plant, an accident… I can’t think about it. Do you think anything could help us? We are 7 kilometers from the nuclear power plant on the other side of the river! Nothing will save us, I’m sure,” Miraevska, a 45-year-old small business owner, told CNN in a phone call.

“That’s why I don’t even entertain this thought.”

When the shelling broke out last month, Miraevska said many residents fled in panic, but she stayed behind to try to help locally, mostly taking in abandoned pets. At night, she and her teenage son take the animals downstairs to their basement-turned-bomb shelter, where they all sleep.

“When they started bombing us, life in general changed. I live in the basement, we go there for the night. We have been sleeping there for a month now,” Miraevska said.

“I don’t think the enemy should be underestimated,” she added.

This is the same message echoed by international experts warning of the disastrous impact an errant shell could have.

Last weekend, shellfire damaged a dry storage facility – where spent nuclear fuel drums are kept at the plant – as well as radiation monitoring detectors, making it impossible to detect any leaks potential, according to Energoatom. Attacks also damaged a high voltage power line and forced one of the plant’s reactors to stop working.

This increase in bombardments prompted the IAEA to intensify its efforts to send an expert mission to visit the factory in order to assess and protect the complex.

While an initial assessment by experts found “no immediate threat to nuclear safety” at the plant, Grossi said on Thursday that “that could change at any time.” He added that although the agency was in frequent contact with Ukrainian and Russian authorities about the plant, the information provided was “contradictory”.

Demands for a cessation of hostilities have multiplied over the past week. The G7 group of major industrialized countries issued a statement of their meeting in Germany on Wednesday calling on Russia to withdraw its forces and hand over control of the plant to Ukraine.

The statement blamed the Russian armed forces, which, according to the G7 countries, “significantly increase the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endanger the Ukrainian population, neighboring states and the international community”.

A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the United States supports calls for a “demilitarized zone” around the nuclear power plant and asks Russia to “cease all military operations in or near nuclear facilities. Ukrainians”.

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