All That Stands Between the World and Nuclear Disaster Are Dedicated Ukrainian Operators Working at Gunpoint

Daniella Cressman

"In the winter darkness, tracer rounds from Russian armored vehicles streaked past nuclear reactors and high-tension electrical lines. A fire broke out. Shrapnel sprayed a reactor containment vessel. In the control room of Reactor No. 3, operators were horrified. 'Stop firing at the nuclear facility,' one begged over the station’s loudspeakers. 'You are endangering the safety of the entire world.'" —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

A large caliber bullet had pierced an outer wall of Reactor No. 4.

Terrifyingly, an artillery shell had also struck an electrical transformer at Reactor No. 6.

"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 and told The New York Times. Both reactors were active." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Thankfully, it did not burn.

"'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." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Officials have now called for a demilitarized zone.

"Five months later, with artillery fire once again striking the plant, the specter of a possible nuclear catastrophe has gripped the world’s attention. 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 that Zaporizhzhia is in greater peril than ever." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting about the plant on Tuesday, Ukraine and the United States—along with their allies—accused Russia of courting disaster and lying about who is responsible for the danger at Zaporizhzhia.

Russia accused them of similar charges.

"On Tuesday at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the plant, Ukraine, the United States and their allies accused Russia of courting disaster and peddling lies about who is responsible for the danger at Zaporizhzhia, while Russia levied similar charges at them. All sides agreed that experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency should visit the site to ensure its safety — and the adversaries blamed each other for delaying that inspection." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Right now, all that's standing between the world and a nuclear disaster are the Ukrainian workers who know the plant intimately.

"Standing between the world and a nuclear calamity are the Ukrainian workers who know the plant intimately, 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 a steady and predictable symbiosis before the Russians arrived." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Under Russian occupation, the plant employees are simultaneously hostages and essential workers.

"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." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

According to officials, approximately 100 plant workers have been detained by Russian forces; ten are still missing.

"The surrounding city where they live, Enerhodar, which translates as 'the gift of energy,' is under siege. Some 100 plant workers have been detained by Russian forces, according to Ukrainian officials and residents. Ten of those are still missing. It is up to a skeletal crew of stressed, tired and scared workers to prevent disaster." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

The vast majority of the seven pillars of safety—meant to protect Zaporizhzhia's physical integrity—are not being followed.

"Zaporizhzhia has its own radioactive waste storage system, which was established in 1999 with Western backing as a way to end reliance on Russian reprocessing of spent fuel. That storage site poses an especially disastrous risk today. Given the sensitive nature of the work, nuclear power plants are meant to abide by seven pillars of safety — ensuring the plant’s physical integrity, keeping safety systems fully functional, maintaining a staff free of undue pressure, preserving reliable logistical chains, monitoring on-site and off-site radiation and sustaining reliable communications with outside regulators. Nearly all those principles are now being violated, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

When operating a power plant, the conditions need to be calm—when things get chaotic and dangerous, people tend to make more mistakes, according to Dmytro Gortenko: a human resources executive who worked in the plant's administration building.

“The main condition for operating a nuclear plant is calm...It should always be calm...Right up to having everything calm at home, in an employee’s home life. When a person is calm, he makes better decisions. In a state of tension or fear, a person makes mistakes.” —Dmytro Gortenko

Mr. Gortenko worked at the plant for 21 years.

"Mr. Gortenko has worked at the plant for 21 years, rising from being an engineer to overseeing the licensing for reactor operators. For him, like many others, work at the plant was a family affair. His father had been a guard, and his mother a librarian for technical documents, the same position his wife also held." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Now, the employees are literally working at gunpoint—around 500 Russian soldiers are at the plant according to witnesses and a Western official.

“'Russian snipers take positions on the roofs of the station’s buildings,' was the message sent to Olha, the engineer. 'The employees are literally working at gunpoint.' An estimated 500 Russian soldiers are at the plant, according to witnesses and a Western official. They are believed to be members of the Rosgvardiya, according to the senior Western official, who have a reputation for brutality. When they arrived, the Russian soldiers tore down the town’s flag — along with a Ukrainian flag flying above City Hall — and put in its place the Russian tricolor and the hammer and sickle of the former Soviet Union, according to residents." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Residents say that the Russians have detained anyone who expressed even the slightest hint of protest.

"Residents say the Russians have been seen drinking, looting and detaining anyone for expressing even a whiff of protest. Across the close-knit company town, people shut themselves at home as stories of friends gone missing multiplied. 'There was a case where a person was taken into the forest and they shot near him in a mock execution, Mr. Gortenko said of a detainee’s ordeal he had heard about through relatives. 'They had lists of people.'" ——Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

At least one man has been beaten to death. Another has mysteriously gone missing.

'"I personally know one man who went missing in March, and there is no information about him,' said Olha, the engineer. 'Another man was taken to the commandant’s office for interrogation and beaten to death.' After the young man was killed, she said, the Russians called his mother and told her to come collect his body. The repression has grown alongside partisan resistance to the Russian occupation in town, adding to the swirl of violence. On May 22, Andrii Shevchyk, whom the Russians had installed as mayor, was injured in a bombing outside his apartment. The next day, Russian soldiers showed up at the front door of Mr. Shvets, the metalworker, and shot him. Mr. Shvets said he had no connection to any organized insurgency but he did staff the barricades, along with hundreds of other plant workers, as Russians approached the city." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Employees at the nuclear plant continued showing up for work despite their terror.

"Harried, fearful for their families, employees at the nuclear plant nonetheless turned up for work in the reactor control rooms, pumping stations and turbine compartments. As the Russians tightened their grip on the plant and the city, officials at Energoatom, the Ukrainian company that oversees the nation’s 15 nuclear reactors, made a decision to allow some nonessential staff to leave." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

A lot of people who are working at the nuclear plant would like like to leave, according to Olha.

“Many of those who are still working would like to leave...” Olha

Olha only agreed to speak if she remained anonymous out of fear for her safety.

In April, Energoatom decided to distribute its entire stockpile of potassium iodide.

"In April, the company also decided to distribute its entire stockpile of potassium iodide, a drug that can protect people from radiation-induced thyroid cancer." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Ukrainian authorities are revising evacuation plans for around 400,000 people living in Ukraine-controlled territory that would probably be in the radiation fallout zone in the case of a meltdown.

"The Ukrainian authorities are also revising evacuation plans for about 400,000 people living in Ukrainian-controlled territory that would most likely be in the radiation fallout zone in the event of a meltdown." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

Ukrainian officials said on Monday that there had been shelling again near the plant.

"On Monday, Ukrainian officials said that there had been shelling again near the plant and that a man had been killed and several others injured when Russian soldiers opened fire on their car at close range. The violence has set off a desperate exodus of those living there, and on whom the peaceful functioning of the plant depends." —Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer

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Canadian-American author writing about local politics, personal finance, & dining in Albuquerque.

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