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Zaporizhzhia: Inside Ukraine’s power plant raising the specter of nuclear disaster in Europe

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Kiev, Ukraine
CNN

Every day Olga takes a bus from her home in the Russian-occupied town of Enerhodar, on the banks of the Dnipro River in southeastern Ukraine, to the nearby Zaporizhzhia power plant where she works.

The plant, Europe’s largest nuclear complex of its kind, is the focus of growing global concern as days of increased bombing have prompted calls for international experts to visit the facility and raised fears of a possible nuclear accident.

Kiev has repeatedly accused Russian forces, which seized the plant in March, of storing heavy weaponry inside the complex and using it as cover to launch attacks, knowing Ukraine could not return fire without risking a strike. one of the plant’s six reactors an error that meant. misfortune Moscow, meanwhile, has claimed that Ukrainian troops are targeting the country. Both sides have tried to point the finger at the other for the threat of nuclear terrorism.

For Olga and her Ukrainian colleagues who still work at the plant, the specter of nuclear disaster is not just a nightmare, it is a daily reality.

It’s like sleeping and dreaming, she told CNN in a recent phone interview, describing the surreal and lingering shock she experienced working at the factory, which, though held by Russian forces, is still operated mostly by technicians. Ukrainian.

In the months since the nuclear facility was seized, Ukrainian workers have slowly begun to return, performing duties in partially destroyed rooms and coming into contact with Russian soldiers only when they pass two checkpoints to enter the compound.

After the invasion, only operative personnel worked at the station. There were many rooms and windows broken and burnt. Then they gradually started asking people to come to work for specific tasks, said Olga, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Now that part of the staff that did not leave is working. About 35 to 40% of the workers left.

Reduced staff and the outbreak of fighting are making working conditions increasingly poor.

Ukraine and Russia again traded blame after further bombings around the plant overnight on Thursday, just hours after the United Nations called on both sides to end military activities near the plant, warning of the worst if they do not.

Unfortunately, instead of de-escalation, over the past few days there have been reports of further deeply disturbing incidents that, if they continue, could lead to catastrophe, UN Secretary-General Antnio Guterres said. said in a statement. I demand the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and the avoidance of any further deployment of forces or equipment to the country.

Addressing a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York on Thursday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said that the recent attacks had brought down parts of the plant, risking an unacceptable potential radiation leak, and called for a team of experts to be urgently allowed into the site, where the situation has deteriorated rapidly.

A view of the Zaporizhzhia plant from Nikopol, across the Dnipro River.

This is a serious hour, a serious hour, and the IAEA should be allowed to carry out its mission in Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible, Grossi said.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, accused Russian forces on Thursday of targeting a storage area for radioactive sources and bombed a firehouse near the plant. A day later, the company said in a statement on its Telegram account that the plant was operating at the risk of violating radiation and fire safety standards.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Denys Monastyrskyi, said on Friday that there was no adequate control over the plant and that Ukrainian specialists who remained there were not allowed access to some areas where they were supposed to be.

CNN is unable to confirm the details provided by Energoatom or Monastyrskyi, but Grossi has said that some parts of the plant were not working. Olga also confirmed that parts of the complex are inaccessible to Ukrainian staff.

Russia has continued to accuse Ukraine of being behind the attacks. A local official in the occupation administration, Vladimir Rogov, told Russia’s state news agency Rossiya 24 channel on Friday that there was ongoing damage to the thermal power transmission line and suggested the complex could be destroyed without any explanation as to how. this. .

Ukrainian authorities say Russian missiles fired from the nuclear power plant have hit the city of Nikopol, on the right bank of the Dnipro River, and surrounding districts over the past week. At least 13 people were killed in the bombings overnight on Tuesday, and several others were injured on Wednesday and Thursday evening, including a 13-year-old girl, according to local officials.

A woman assesses the damage on a street in Nikopol, where residents say they are living under a relentless barrage of rockets.

Many buildings in Nikopol have been damaged due to Russian attacks, according to Ukrainian officials.

Over the past few months, Olga said she has seen Russian military equipment arriving at the nuclear complex, although most of it is now hidden from view. Initially, there was equipment on the territory of the station, now there is even more, she said, adding that employees are not allowed in the areas where it is stored.

But when she comes home from work, Russia’s firepower is clear, she said. Horrors happen at night, they are bombing the city.

The impact on the right bank (of the river) knocks so hard that the houses shake and the windows shake. It is eerie in the silence of the night when people are sleeping, she added.

Across the Dnipro, in Nikopol, the attacks now feel relentless.

From the window of her home near the city’s harbor, Oksana Miraevska can look out across the water and see the barrage of incoming shells.

If something happens to the power plant, an accident I can’t think about it. Do you think something can help us? We are 7 kilometers from the nuclear power plant across the river! Nothing will save us, I’m sure, Miraevska, a 45-year-old small business owner, told CNN in a phone call.

That’s why I don’t even have that opinion.

When the bombings broke out last month, Miraevska said many residents fled in panic, but she stayed behind trying to help on the ground, mostly taking in abandoned pets. At night, she and her teenage son take the animals downstairs to their shelter in the basement, where they all sleep.

When they started bombing us, then life in general changed. I live in the basement, we go there for the night. We have been sleeping there for a month now, said Miraevska.

I don’t think the enemy should be underestimated, she added.

It’s the same message echoed by international experts warning of the catastrophic impact a misguided projectile could cause.

Last weekend, a shell fire damaged a dry storage facility where spent nuclear fuel is kept at the plant as well as radiation monitoring detectors, making it impossible to detect any potential leaks, according to Energoatom. The attacks also damaged a high-voltage power line and forced one of the plant’s reactors to shut down.

This increase in shelling prompted the IAEA to intensify its efforts to send a mission of experts to visit the plant to assess and protect the complex.

While an initial assessment by experts found no immediate threat to nuclear safety at the plant, Grossi said Thursday that could change at any moment. He added that while the agency was in frequent contact with Ukrainian and Russian authorities regarding the plant, the information provided was contradictory.

Demands for a cessation of hostilities have increased over the past week. The G7 group of major industrialized countries issued a statement from their meeting in Germany on Wednesday calling on Russia to withdraw its forces and hand over control of the plant in Ukraine.

The statement laid the blame at the feet of the Russian armed forces, which the G7 countries said were significantly increasing the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endangering the population of Ukraine, neighboring states and the international community.

A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the United States supports calls for a demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plant and urged Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.

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