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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian operators of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant will not restart the plant until Russian occupying forces leave the facility, Ukrainian nuclear agency chief Petro Kotin told NPR. .
Ukrainian workers shut down the war-damaged plant last weekend for safety reasons amid continued shelling. On Tuesday, workers completed the restoration of three emergency power lines – good news at the plant which officials and energy experts say could face disaster as fighting continues around it.
Yet the situation remains tense and unpredictable at Zaporizhzhia – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, occupied by Russian troops since early March but operated mainly by Ukrainian personnel – and concerns about the risk of a nuclear disaster still loom. fighting resumes in this part of southern Ukraine.
After a recent inspection, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it found disturbing evidence of destruction and workers operating in conditions causing them extreme distress.
“It’s just awful,” says Petro Kotin, chairman of Ukraine’s atomic energy agency, Energoatom. who operates the plant. “Because the staff can’t operate freely, thinking about the nuclear safety of the plant. Instead, they think about what’s going to happen next with them, with their families – will they be captured or tortured – or even killed?”
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Although Ukrainian workers still operate the plant, Russia has brought in some of its own engineers and nuclear experts. But according to nuclear experts, Ukraine’s systems are different from Russia’s, meaning only trained personnel know how to use them safely and effectively.
Kotin says he is in regular contact from his base in Kyiv with officials at the Zaporizhzhia plant, located southeast of the capital in the town of Enerhodar. But the Russians will only allow him to talk to them by phone, not video, as he does with officials at other Ukrainian facilities he oversees.
“I can tell by evaluating their voices that they are on the verge of psychological disaster. These people are very exhausted,” he says.
There have been reports of physical abuse of Ukrainian personnel, and while NPR has not independently verified specific incidents, the IAEA has expressed concerns for months about the well-being of personnel working in extremely stressful conditions.
Kotin lists cases of violence against his employees he says he knows about: Dozens were detained and tortured for days, he says. One of them died after being beaten by Russian soldiers. Another was shot five times in his apartment in front of his family.
Last week the final reactor was taken offline or put into ‘cold shutdown’ mode, creating a safer situation if power were to be cut to the plant again – and relieving staff as fewer people are needed to operate the plant. In this mode, the reactor does not produce electricity, but still needs power to keep its cooling systems running, so restoring power lines is essential.
The decommissioning of the country’s largest nuclear power plant is a major loss for energy production in Ukraine. The Zaporizhzia Nuclear Power Plant has six of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors, and before the unrest in Zaporizhzhia causes disruption, nuclear energy typically provides just over half of the country’s energy.
Currently, coal is helping to make up the difference, but many coal-fired power plants lie to the east, surrounded by heavy fighting or even destroyed. As some stability returns to other parts of the country, more people return home, and winter approaches, energy needs will undoubtedly increase. The country could face a shortage.
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While the IAEA and other international organizations pushed for a demilitarized zone around the plant, efforts did not go far.
But Kotin remains hopeful that Ukraine will soon regain control of the complex.
“I hope the Russians will finally understand that they are not where they should be. So what can they do better? Just leave the factory and go back to Russia,” he says.
This kind of optimism reflects what many Ukrainians are now feeling after the massive success of the counteroffensive in the east: a renewed sense of possibility for a Russian retreat.