Ukrainian Power Plant Workers: Nuclear Disaster Preventers

By Caroline Smith ’24

Back when the war first started to begin in Ukraine, during the dark and cold hours of the night Russian armored vehicles streaked past nuclear reactors and high-tension electrical lines. A fire broke out.      

Explosive debris had hit a reactor containment vessel. In the control room of Reactor No. 3, operators were shocked to see what had happened. “Stop firing at the nuclear facility,” one begged over the station’s loudspeakers. “You are endangering the safety of the entire world.”

The crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant — a sprawl of cooling towers, nuclear reactors, machine rooms, and radioactive waste storage sites — was graver than even those who worked there knew, in early March, just days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

“A large caliber bullet had pierced an outer wall of Reactor No. 4 but, most worrying and not disclosed at the time, an artillery shell had struck an electrical transformer at Reactor No. 6, which was filled with flammable cooling oil, plant employees subsequently learned both reactors were active.”

“By happy coincidence, it didn’t burn,” said an engineer, Oleksiy, who insisted that his last name not be publicly disclosed out of security concerns.”

Five months since then with artillery firing starting up once again it was brought to the attention of the world how serious of danger the world could be in if the artillery continues. Officials from the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations have called for the creation of a demilitarized zone, as Ukraine and Russia each accuse the other of preparing attacks on the plant — leading many to fear and worry that the plant Zaporizhzhia is in more danger than ever.

On Tuesday, August 16, 2022, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on the topic of the plant, in Ukraine, the United States and their allies all accused Russia of creating a high danger crisis and spinning lies about who is to take responsibility for the danger caused at Zaporizhzhia, while Russia levied similar charges at them. All sides came to the settlement that it would be best for the safety of the world that experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency should visit the site to ensure its safety.

A day after the U.N. atomic watchdog agency pressed for a safe zone there to prevent a catastrophe shelling resumed on the plant with the warring sides trading blame again on Wednesday.

“Russian forces fired rockets and heavy artillery on the city of Nikopol, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper River from Europe’s largest nuclear plant, regional Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said.”

“There are fires, blackouts, and other things at the (plant) that force us to prepare the local population for the consequences of the nuclear danger,” Reznichenko said. Officials have distributed iodine pills to residents to help protect them in the event of a radiation leak.

In Enerhodar, where the power plant is located, Dmytro Orlov, the pre-occupation mayor, reported the city was under attack due to Russian forces, for a second time Wednesday and was without power. “Employees of communal and other services simply do not have time to complete emergency and restoration work, as another shelling reduces their work to zero,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.

The Russian side accused that it was the Ukrainians. Vladimir Rogov, head of the Russia-installed Enerhodar administration, said on Telegram that heavy Ukrainian fighting had caused the city’s blackout, and Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed the outage on a Ukrainian attack on a power substation.

Russian rockets on Wednesday hit Mala Tokmachka 55 miles northeast of Enerhodar, killing three people and injuring five, Zaporizhzhia regional Gov. Oleksandr Starukh reported.

The head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, has cautioned that “something very, very catastrophic could take place” at the Zaporizhzhia plant and recommended that Russia and Ukraine establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around it. The concern is that if the fighting goes on for much longer around the plant it could trigger a disaster on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Conditions at the plant have gone downhill. Due to the extreme amount of damage to external power lines from the fighting, the plant is generating electricity only to power safety systems that keep the reactor cores cool and prevent them from melting down, a Ukrainian official said. Any further power disruption could force the plant to use back-up diesel generators, requiring four diesel fuel trucks a day to travel through the fighting, said Oleh Korikov, Ukraine’s acting chief inspector for nuclear and radiation safety.

Standing between the world and a nuclear catastrophe are the Ukrainian workers who know the plant confidentially like no one else, having run it for years with the utmost precaution in a sleepy corner of southern Ukraine where the city and the plant had once lived in perfect harmony and predictable symbiosis before the Russians abruptly arrived and disturbed the peace.

“Today, under Russian occupation, the plant employees are both hostages and essential workers, Ukrainian engineers’ duty bound to prevent disaster while working under the watchful eye of Russian snipers.”

Enerhodar the city which houses the plant is currently under attack.  So far About 100 plant workers have been detained by Russian forces, according to Ukrainian officials and residents. Ten of those are still missing. The safety of the world is now in the hands of a scarce crew of stressed, tired, and scared workers to prevent disaster from ensuing.

“Imagine men and women coming to work and facing armed soldiers all around,” said Serhiy Shvets, a metalworker at the plant who was shot by Russian soldiers at his home in May. They had searched videos of people who protested in the first days of the war and saw his face.

Mr. Shvets, 53, was able to get out of the city safely and to Ukrainian-controlled territory, where he spoke from his hospital bed. He fears for the plant, the city, and the world with the Russian military now crawling all about the nuclear station. “They are like a monkey with a grenade, not really understanding the threat they are posing,” he said.

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