The shelling is a deliberate step in Russia’s aim to steal Zaporizhzhia’s power by severing its connection to Ukraine’s remaining territory
By Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw
Aug. 14, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
The first sign of danger came when the dwindling crew of Ukrainian technicians running the Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power station noticed that officers from Russia’s state atomic energy company had left the premises without explanation. It was Aug. 5, and Russian soldiers were patrolling the facility. Then, at 2:40 p.m., explosions rocked an electrical switchboard, triggering the shutdown of one of only two remaining power lines running from the plant into southern Ukraine, according to plant workers. Outside, smoke billowed from a crater a few hundred yards from a substation; inside, technicians raced to check the backup diesel generators that would be needed to cool nuclear fuel at risk of overheating in an accident.
It wasn’t errant shelling likely to cause nuclear disaster, but a deliberate step in Russia’s wider goal: stealing Zaporizhzhia’s power by severing its connection to Ukraine’s remaining territory, according to Ukrainian leaders, international nuclear-power experts and the plant’s staff. “What Russia is trying to do is the utility equivalent of annexation,” said Suriya Jayanti, former energy chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
She said the expropriation of such a large supply of cheap and reliable power would ripple through energy markets, leaving Ukraine dependent on the European Union, where electricity prices last week hit record highs. “Russia stealing a nuclear-power plant is a problem for Europe,” she said.
In the 10 days since the launch of the attack, more than a dozen missiles and rockets have struck the grounds around the nuclear plant, a 6.7 gigawatt facility that provided about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before the war.
The blasts have triggered Ukraine’s latest and most perilous nuclear safety crisis since the disaster in 1986 at Chernobyl, and left the International Atomic Energy Agency scrambling for details on conditions inside a plant that it now says is “out of control.” The U.S. and the EU have called for a demilitarized zone around the complex. A coalition of 42 countries on Sunday said Russia should withdraw from the power plant and allow Ukrainian authorities to resume control.
Ukraine and Russia are blaming each other for firing shells at the facility, trading alternative narratives about a plant that Russia has largely closed off from the world since it was captured in the first days of the war. Russian forces controlling the facility have repeatedly cut internet connections around the plant and confiscated the cellphones of Ukrainian workers, who still operate it, during their shifts. The region is now serviced, spottily, by Russian telecoms.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy company, contested the workers’ statements, without elaborating. The company said its staff were present to provide technical advice for the safety of the plant and played no role in its management or defense.
This reconstruction of the battle is based on interviews with plant workers, family members and colleagues who fled to safety. Satellite imagery, pictures taken by drones and cellphone photos and videos captured by bystanders also show the damage the plant has sustained and the deployment of Russian artillery around it and in nearby towns.
Plant workers, backed by European officials and independent nuclear analysts, said the shelling came from Russian positions. They said it serves the Kremlin’s broader goal of severing Zaporizhzhia’s power connection to Ukraine’s remaining territory and rerouting it into Russian-held areas.
According to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear-power company, the strikes were targeted to destroy infrastructure, damaging power transmission lines and, as a result, cutting off power across the south of Ukraine.
The power line struck by shell fire on Aug. 5 was in what Ukrainians call “the gray zone” between Russian and Ukrainian positions and was the third transmission line from the plant damaged in fighting since the war began, leaving just one working line. Ukrainian energy ministry officials said engineers have been trying to repair the damaged line but wouldn’t name the location of the strike due to security concerns.
Several Zaporizhzhia employees said Rosatom technicians have openly discussed rerouting electricity to territories occupied by Russia and eventually back into Russia. Senior Russian officials, including deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin, have publicly pledged to integrate Zaporizhzhia with Russia’s energy system, or force Ukraine to pay for the electricity.
On Saturday, Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a tweet: “The Russian goal—to disconnect us from ZNPP and blame the Ukrainian army.” At the plant, Russian forces have been fortifying their control for the long haul since seizing it in early March.
The complex is defended by anti-personnel mines alongside the reservoir that feeds water into the reactor and the ponds that cool its spent rods. Heavy weaponry in place has included Smerch missile launchers and Grad rocket launchers, according to plant workers, Ukrainian officials and satellite and cellphone imagery of the complex.
On Saturday, a worker photographed a 203-millimeter self-propelled Russian artillery unit along the road to the plant—emblazoned with the Russian “Z” symbol. The photo was viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Some 500 Russian soldiers live in makeshift barracks around the plant and in the nearby town of Enerhodar.
Ukraine’s government said in a letter to the IAEA last week, reviewed by the Journal, that Rosatom executives were leading Russian efforts to sever the nuclear plant from the Ukrainian grid. “To destroy the plant’s infrastructure, cause damage to transmission lines…and to cause a blackout in the south of Ukraine,” the letter said. President Zelensky warned in his Saturday address that any Russian soldiers who shoot at Europe’s largest nuclear-power station or use it as a base to shoot from would become a “special target” for Ukrainian forces.
Petro Kotin, president of Energoatom, said in an interview with Ukrainian television that Rosatom staff were initiating a “special procedure that will allow them to reconnect the plant’s electricity to Crimea,” through substations in territories occupied by Russian forces. Asked about that accusation, Rosatom said: “We categorically and unequivocally deny these allegations. They are completely untrue.” Ukrainian security officials said Russian engineers in occupied territories have been quizzing managers at substations on how to best reroute Zaporizhzhia’s power. When Rosatom technicians arrived shortly after Russian forces seized the plant on March 1, they asked Ukrainian workers if it would be possible to redirect its electricity to existing lines in Crimea. “They were open about it,” said a technician who fled across the front line with his family earlier this month. “They asked us for schemes of electricity systems.”
Key hub for electricity
Rosatom is the successor of the state-owned entities responsible for the civilian nuclear program in the former Soviet Union, where huge investment in power generation allowed Communist leaders to rapidly industrialize their agrarian empire. Soviet Ukraine was a key hub for electricity generation through giant hydroelectric turbines along the Dnipro River early in the 20th century and nuclear power later in the century. When the Soviet Union broke apart, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine retained connections among their electrical grids and traded power.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine and the European Union began retooling the country’s high voltage transmission system to disconnect from Russia’s grid and reconnect them into Europe’s. On Feb. 24, the day the war began, Ukraine was conducting a test to see how its grid would fare if entirely disconnected from Russia’s. Since then, Zaporizhzhia has continued to feed power across battle lines to Ukrainian-held ground.
Russia can’t simply shut the plant down, nuclear analysts said, because it would be too hard to restart. The plant’s total staff numbered 11,000 before the war sent many fleeing for safety, and a shutdown could accelerate that exodus. Russia doesn’t have the manpower to recruit thousands of skilled workers needed to run a nuclear station near an active front line, independent nuclear analysts say.
What it can do, the analysts said, is slice off the plant’s connections to the rest of Ukraine—the transmission line hit Aug. 5 supplied unoccupied Ukraine—while over coming months install the infrastructure to reroute power to occupied territories, Russia and even export markets, where the price of electricity is surging.
“This would be the biggest electricity heist ever,” said Thomas Popik, chairman of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to the protection of critical infrastructure. “These attacks on the plants are very carefully calibrated to damage but not destroy.”
On Friday, Russia’s Federation Council said Ukraine’s alleged strikes on the plant had ruled out the possibility of ever returning it to Kyiv. “The only way to ensure safety at a nuclear-power plant is 100% control over its activities,” said Konstantin Kosachev, vice speaker of the council. Asked whether it would be possible to return the plant to Ukraine, he said: “No, and again no.”
Russia has blocked Ukrainian proposals to send an IAEA delegation to the plant overland via Ukrainian-held territory, and Kyiv opposes Moscow’s proposal that delegations reach the plant via the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Security Council, Vasily Nebenzya, said Ukraine was responsible for the shelling, risking a
“nuclear catastrophe it is impossible even to imagine…In this case, all responsibility for this will fall on the Western sponsors of Kyiv.” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said on Thursday there was “a real risk of nuclear disaster” unless the fighting stops and inspectors are urgently allowed inside the facility.
In addition to risks to the physical integrity of the building from shelling, the IAEA said the lack of regular off-site monitoring of radiation, the blockage of spare parts, fuel and supplies, and a short-handed and exhausted staff collectively amount to a nuclear safety crisis.
‘Totally different behavior’
On Aug. 5, the first shells began exploding shortly after lunch. A voice on the public address system ordered workers to leave open areas to head for shelter inside the better-protected buildings.
Ukrainian workers noticed Russian soldiers moving calmly toward their bases. “During this shelling, their behavior was totally different,” said one Ukrainian technician. “When there is a single Ukrainian drone flying above the station, Russians run away in panic.” The first artillery shell landed near an electrical switchboard. The plant needs backup power to keep emergency systems running, either from on-site generators or from transmission lines from other plants. Employees couldn’t call their families in the neighboring Enerhodar, where people could hear the explosions. Cellphones brought to work had been confiscated, as usual, by guards.
Shelling in recent days has hit other installations around the plant, knocking out pumps for sewage, transmission lines and a nearby neighborhood of five-story apartments built to house staff. Analysts say many of those targets are designed to hurt the transmission of energy to Ukrainian-held territory.
The back-to-back explosions have been a shock even for workers inured to the pressure of safeguarding the station during nearly six months of occupation. The station, a proud symbol of Ukrainian industry—much of it built after the country’s independence—has become an occupied garrison.
Russian flags and a picture of President Vladimir Putin now hang in the hallways where soldiers have been hunting for spies. In May, they shot a 53-year-old maintenance technician, Sergey Shvets, for allegedly passing information to Ukraine. Mr. Shvets survived and last month was recovering in a hospital in Enerhodar.
As reports arrived of mass rape by Russian soldiers during their brief occupation of the central Ukrainian town of Bucha, Ukrainian managers asked female employees not to wear makeup or revealing clothes, afraid of predation from the troops patrolling town or checking purses, bags and pockets at the entrance to the plants.
The Russians have begun to park materiel near strategically important places, such as water pipelines and electricity transformers, apparently to deter a Ukrainian response.
Write to Joe Parkinson at email@example.com and Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org