Land mines and missile launchers are deployed at Zaporizhzhia, as cameras and instruments go dark and workers are held for ransom
By Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson
July 5, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
The Russian army is transforming Europe’s largest nuclear power plant into a military base overlooking an active front, intensifying a monthslong safety crisis for the vast facility and its thousands of staff. At the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, more than 500 Russian soldiers who seized the facility in March recently have deployed heavy artillery batteries, and laid anti-personnel mines along the shores of the reservoir whose water cools its six reactors, according to workers, residents, Ukrainian officials, and diplomats. The Ukrainian army holds the towns dotted on the opposite shore, some 3 miles away, but sees no easy way to attack the plant, given the inherent danger of artillery battles around active nuclear reactors.
The new infusion of weaponry effectively shields the plant from a counterattack by Ukrainian forces, and amounts to something the carefully regulated atomic-energy industry has never seen before: The slow-motion transformation of a nuclear power station into a military garrison. In a lesser-scrutinized aspect of its war strategy, the Russian army is day-by-day positioning the weaponry around a nuclear plant that is among the world’s largest, using it to cement control of the front line where their advance through southern Ukraine ground to a halt.
Russian forces deployed a Smerch artillery vehicle last month in the shadow of the 5.7 gigawatt complex’s striped chimneys, adding to the grad rocket launchers, tanks and personnel carriers. The earth around the plant is carved with trenches, with military guard dogs stationed out of a makeshift kennel. Senior technicians from Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, have set up a base in a guarded bunker beneath the plant. “They are keeping it like a base for their artillery,” said a European official posted to the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, which remains in Ukrainian control. “They understand that Ukraine will not answer their attacks from the plant.”
Ukrainian defense officials said that even if their forces could mount a conventional military effort to recapture the plant, they are focused on pushing a counteroffensive to the northeastern and southern cities of Kharkiv and Kherson. “It seems like this is one of the Russian tactics, to take critical infrastructure and use it as a shield,” said former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. “We’re not going to storm the plant. The only way to do it would be to surround it, to take the surrounding areas, and ask them to leave.”
Zaporizhzhia employees and their families fear the plant’s growing militarization could lead to another accident just 300 miles from Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. “They don’t understand what might happen because of their actions there,” said the wife of one worker.
Last week, the United Nations’ nuclear regulator was in the dark for three days about conditions inside Zaporizhzhia, after its data connection to the plant went offline before being restored. That marked the second time since Russia’s invasion that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Vienna headquarters has lost its feed from the cameras and instruments that normally relay security footage and safety readings from the vast complex.
The Wall Street Journal spoke to Zaporizhzhia plant workers, their managers, local officials and diplomats following the crisis, reviewed messages shared between workers and their relatives and annotated maps
showing the Russian military buildup. Russia’s Defense Ministry didn’t reply to a request for comment. A representative for Rosatom said its employees on site weren’t involved in management or security, but have been sent to offer “technical, consulting, communications and other assistance to the operator if required”.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian state energy company Energoatom, which still manages the plant, said Russian troops were threatening to drain the cooling pools to find any weapons they suspected Ukrainian resistance fighters had hidden underwater. That could pose a serious challenge to the plant, which relies on a steady flow of filtered water to cool its reactors and spent fuel rods.
As their occupation grinds on, some Russian soldiers stationed at Zaporizhzhia have turned to a strategy of routine extortion: kidnapping some of the 11,000 plant workers for ransom. More than 40 people are currently being held captive, say plant workers, with families using group chats on the social-media messaging app Viber to share pictures of abducted personnel and crowdfund their ransoms. At the plant, their colleagues complain they are having to work extra hours to cover the shifts of kidnapped victims. “Please help me,” one man posted to a Viber group, sharing photos of his heavily bruised face and right leg, his right eye bloodshot. The Russians would only release him, he added, if he raised 50,000 hryvnias, equivalent to $1,681, within three days. “Such cases are by no means isolated,” said a plant worker who recently fled the area for unoccupied Ukraine. The workers being held for ransom include his friend, an instructor of safety protocol who also provided psychological counseling for the plant’s staff. “No one wants to be next,” the worker said.
Russian forces overwhelmed the Zaporizhzhia plant with an artillery and rocket-propelled grenade barrage during the early hours of March 4, eight days after the invasion. The assault set a training center on fire just a few hundred yards from the six reactors, only two of which are still in operation.
Nuclear safety specialists say that without independent experts visiting the site, it is difficult to assess the various risks that Russian land mines, artillery and loosely disciplined soldiers pose to the plant’s two active reactors. The takeover of an active nuclear power plant is unprecedented and presents a series of complex, interlocking questions, such as whether the mines around the reservoir could damage the filters that sieve the water pumped into the reactors.
Russia is one of 32 United Nations member countries—including the U.S.—that haven’t signed a 1997 treaty banning the use of antipersonnel mines in war. The devices are particularly treacherous because they often become more volatile as they age over decades and explosives harden while components corrode.
The IAEA, which has for months unsuccessfully tried to negotiate agreement and safe passage to conduct an inspection of the site, says nearly all of what it calls the seven pillars of nuclear safety have been compromised at Zaporizhzhia. These include the physical integrity of the building, regular off-site monitoring of radiation, and the steady flow of spare parts, fuel and supplies. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has said that he also wants to confirm that none of the plant’s supply of enriched uranium and enriched plutonium has gone missing, because it could, though with great difficulty, be enriched to a much higher, weapons-grade level. “This is what keeps us awake at night at the moment,” he told an audience in Switzerland in May.
The primary and immediate risk is to the plant’s staff. Ukrainian nuclear safety protocols are based on enormous numbers of workers helming components that in a western plant would be monitored by far fewer people. The duress of the occupation poses the danger, nuclear specialists said, that workers would commit stress-induced errors, or simply leave their stations to seek refuge in Ukrainian-held territory just across the river.
There, in the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia, many aspects of life continue more or less as normal: People ride the city tram to work, eat lunch in bustling public parks and attend Mass on Sundays. The wail of air-raid sirens
or the distant booms of artillery play out in the background. Inside the plant, meanwhile, ordinary technicians and repairmen have been vowing to resist the takeover.
Suspected Ukrainian spies have been taken away for days and often weeks, beaten, tortured and denied food, according to workers and plant management. In May, a 53-year-old maintenance technician, Sergey Shvets, was shot by the Russians, accused of passing information to Ukraine’s defense forces to undermine the occupation. “There can be no good radiation safety at a nuclear power plant where personnel are living in an occupied city whose population is terrorized,” said Mark Zheleznyak, professor at Japan’s Fukushima Institute of Environmental Radioactivity.
The abductions, once focused on plant workers suspected of joining or supporting the Ukrainian self-defense units, have widened in the past few weeks, workers and residents say. Increasingly, Russian forces are holding and ransoming civilian workers regardless of their loyalties and taking more women in addition to men. “The occupiers have another major activity, kidnapping for money,” said Dmitry Orlov, the mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar, which he fled after Russian soldiers seized it. “Every day we receive two or three reports of new kidnappings. People are being abducted en masse.”
Yana Tashkeyvch contributed to this article.
Write to Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org and Joe Parkinson at email@example.com