Home World An alarming tug-of-war around the Ukrainian nuclear power plant

An alarming tug-of-war around the Ukrainian nuclear power plant

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LEXIT A refrigerator is simple; you just load it onto the truck. Looting a nuclear power plant is much more difficult and dangerous, as Vladimir Putin’s looters found out. In March, they launched a seize Zaporozhye by a reckless firefight in the south of Ukraine is the largest nuclear facility in Europe. They seized it, and now Russia claims its ownership. Fortunately, there was no shelling cause a nuclear accident.

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

Zaporozhye usually provides 20%. Electricity of Ukraine but, being close to the front line, its six reactors have been shut down since September. About 500 Russian military personnel are now on site, their armored vehicles hidden in turbine halls and underground bunkers designed to shelter personnel in the event of a nuclear accident. There are even more garrisons in the occupied nearby town of Energodar, where the majority of the plant’s Ukrainian employees and their families live.

“The Russians are using the station as a military base,” says Petro Kotin, president of the Ukrainian nuclear company Energaatom and former director of the Zaporozhye NPP. “They understand that no one from Ukraine will fire at it, no one will directly attack the plant. It is a safe place to store their military equipment and personnel.”

Since the nuclear plant is no longer generating electricity, it needs to inject it to keep the cooling systems running for the nuclear fuel, which is still hot even after the reactors have shut down. But supplies to the plant were cut off repeatedly, leading to five complete blackouts, the most recent on November 3-5. Backup generators have been used, which Mr. Cottin calls “the last line of defense,” but diesel supplies are limited.

The Russians wanted to connect the Zaporozhye power plant to the Crimean grid they controlled in order to steal Ukrainian electricity. But they were unable to do so due to the damage to the electrical substations caused by the fighting. “It looks like they’re not trying to connect anymore,” says Mr. Cottin. “They’re stuck.”

Even if the reactors were connected to the Russian grid, they would have to be restarted. Four of the plant’s reactors are in “cold” shutdown mode and two are in “hot” mode, meaning they are still operating but at a much lower temperature than normal, capable of generating steam to heat many of the plant’s buildings, and even some for parts of the nearby city, but not at high enough pressure to drive the turbines that normally generate electricity.

When the outside temperature starts to drop below zero, more heat is required. Another reactor will need to be reheated to get extra steam (but not power). Ukrainian regulators allowed it; the Russians, who also have their own nuclear technicians at the site, said no.

About 3,000 Ukrainian employees still at the plant work under the constant intimidation that accompanies the occupation. “Making matters worse, they now also face conflicting instructions on how to run the plant,” Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a recent statement. Four international employees of the IAEA work at the plant. “At least we have information from this independent source,” Mr. Kotin said, “but there’s nothing they can do about these Russian actions. They are just observers.”

Ukrainian personnel were banned from communicating with the Ukrainian authorities (who still pay their salaries) and were forced to sign a contract with a newly formed Russian energy agency in the newly occupied territory. The Russians offer high salaries and bonuses to those who sign up; but Mr. Cottin says only about 200 did so.

Three top managers have been kidnapped by the Russians in recent months; two were released a few days later, but remain at home in occupied Energadar in a “very bad psychological state.” When Ukrainian authorities tried to contact one, his family told them not to call again because he needed time to recover. For more than a month, the head of operational maintenance of the plant, Oleg Asheka, has been missing. “We don’t know what’s going on with him,” Mr Cottin said. “He is in prison. We hope that he will be released. He could be tortured.”

The mayor of Energodar, Dmytro Orlov, says that about 1,000 people, employees of the plant and residents of his town, have been detained by the Russians since the beginning of the occupation in March of last year. Some were released with injuries after torture. Others were killed. In May, for example, the Russians shot an engineer five times in his home. He was allowed to evacuate to the territory of Ukraine, where doctors saved his life. About 70 people are still in the hands of the Russians. The mayor says the Russians refused to include these civilians in the state exchange of prisoners negotiations, “no matter what, all these processes are ignored.”

In the city tense and gloomy conditions. Of the pre-war population of 53,000, only about 15,000 people are left, mostly pensioners who cannot leave and are laying off workers. “Partially there is no electricity, almost all the time there are interruptions with the water supply,” says Mr. Orlov. Communal services continued to work, but since September, regular convoys bringing food, medicine and other materials from the territory of Ukraine were stopped by the occupying forces.

Mr. Orlov is currently outside of Energodar, but continues to be in contact with residents, despite the danger to them if they are found talking to Ukrainian authorities. They report that the military in the city are located in empty apartments and often walk around in civilian clothes. The Russians, the mayor says, are avoiding introducing heavy armored vehicles into the city, because they know that the residents will hand over their position to the Ukrainian forces. “Guerrilla movement works,” says Mr. Orlov. “But you understand I can’t talk about that.”

Mr. Grossi of the IAEA tried to negotiate a 30 km demilitarized zone around the plant; but after withdrawing from nearby Kherson, Russian consent seems unlikely, given the reactors’ strategic importance. Dozens of explosions were reported to have gone off around the site last weekend as a result of shelling; some buildings were damaged, but apparently not any systems or equipment critical to the safety of the plant. “The situation there is becoming unpredictable,” says Mr. Kotin. “Probably, they are afraid of a new Ukrainian offensive.”

Mr. Orlov says that he is told in the city that “the situation is changing, the Russians are robbing everyone. They take everything they see.” Perhaps, he believes, the Russians are beginning to understand that their time in Energodar is running out.

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