One year after war, Ukraine’s beleaguered nuclear plant turned into Russian military base
Ukraine’s Zaporizhia nuclear power plant no longer produces electricity and serves only as a military base for Moscow’s troops, the exiled mayor of the city of Energodar, which houses the facility, told AFP.
Moscow troops occupied the plant in the southern Zaporizhzhya region on March 4 last year, just days after the start of Russia’s invasion.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised concerns about shelling near the plant, calling for a demilitarized zone around it.
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“During one year of occupation, (the Russians) have turned Europe’s largest nuclear power plant into a military base,” Energodar mayor Dmitro Orlov, 37, told AFP in an interview.
The plant has repeatedly made headlines and revived fears of a nuclear catastrophe similar to the deadly Chernobyl disaster that shook Ukraine in 1986.
Orlov said that Russian troops take advantage of the fact that Ukraine “will not fire” at the site to avoid such an incident.
Kiev and Moscow have blamed each other for the shelling around the plant.
This means Russia uses the plant as a “nuclear shield” to keep its military equipment, ammunition and personnel safe, he said.
According to Orlov, at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are currently stationed at the power plant and at Energodar.
The city, located on the banks of the Dnieper River, saw its population drop from 53,000 to about 15,000 after the invasion.
dangerously low staffing
“Most of the occupation troops are based at the power plant because they are safe there,” said Mayer, who moved to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia in April 2022.
Zaporizhia is about 120 kilometers (75 mi) from Energodar, but Orlov said he maintained regular contact with residents who lived in the town he ruled.
The exodus from Energodar after the Russian occupation affected not only the town but also the plant’s employees.
According to Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom, half the workforce at the facility has been eliminated.
About 6,500 personnel remained, compared to 11,000 before the war.
Energoatom told AFP that thousands of professionals left for areas controlled by Kiev and of those who remained, some 2,600 agreed to “cooperate” with Russia.
Mayor Orlov said, “Staff is a real problem, which has an impact on security.”
According to them, the remaining employees are overworked, forced to work with less staff and without holidays.
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The plant, which previously produced 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity, continued to operate in the first months of the invasion, despite frequent shelling.
Now, six of its Soviet-era reactors are shut down and no longer produce electricity.
The facility is connected to Ukraine’s energy grid but consumes electricity only for its own needs.
no military solution
Moscow “tried for several months to connect it to the Russian power network but they didn’t succeed,” Orlov said.
Energoatom said Russia was unable to put any of the reactors into operation because power transmission lines, except the one feeding it from Ukraine, had been damaged.
According to Energoatom, even though Moscow sends its own specialists, “their skills are not enough to organize the full work of the plant”.
The issue is that the shutdown of the plant has led to a “gradual degradation of its systems and equipment”.
The operator also warned of “the risk of a nuclear or radiation accident” if the last power line connecting the plant to the Ukrainian energy grid is cut.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said on Wednesday that Moscow could be “attempting to deter a possible Ukrainian retaliatory strike” in the south, “escalating the threat” to the plant.
The UN nuclear agency IAEA posted observers to the plant in September and is seeking to negotiate a demilitarized zone near the facility, but talks appear to have stalled.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said on Twitter on Thursday that a new rotation of experts had been completed, posting a video of observers in helmets and bulletproof vests walking around a destroyed bridge to reach the power plant.
“The fact that they are already there is a plus,” said Orlov, who says there can only be a diplomatic solution.
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“For obvious reasons, no one will disarm the army and take possession of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant by military means.”