As Russian soldiers started to melt away from their positions at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on Tuesday, the Ukrainian staff began to wonder what was afoot.
They were left above ground while the occupying forces moved down into reinforced bunkers. Then, the whoosh of an outgoing mortar round was followed by the thud of impact and explosion, captured on video by one of the workers. Then another, and another.
The director of Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, told The Times that the brief gaps between the sounds of the outgoing and incoming rounds, coupled with the apparent forewarning, showed that the Russians were shelling the plant from a short range.
Petro Kotin said the Russians were using explosives to try to sever the plant’s connection to Ukraine’s power grid. “They provided us with a plan for reconnecting the nuclear power plant to Crimea, which at the moment is within the Russian power system,” he said. “Now we’re working with the European system, you cannot just switch one system to another. But this is their goal.”
Crimea was cut off from Ukrainian electricity in November 2015 after it was illegally annexed by Russia, plunging the peninsula into blackout. Moscow eventually laid cables across the Kerch strait to Krasnodar Krai after months of unreliable energy supply.
“The plant is connected now by only one of three lines,” Kotin said. “This is dangerous because cutting the last would cause a blackout.”
The director said diesel generators could continue cooling the plant’s six reactors in an emergency but they have fuel for only two weeks. The generators could not be relied on to work for so long, he added. Smoke could be seen rising from the plant today after more strikes.
A former plant worker still in touch with colleagues told The Times that the Russians dismissed staff early before using artillery to stage a false flag “provocation” designed to discredit Ukraine.
Kotin receives daily updates in his Kyiv headquarters from staff at the plant. They are tolerated by the Russian occupiers because they ensure its safe operation. About 500 members of President Putin’s personal army, Rosgvardia, have been stationed at the atomic energy provider since they stormed it on March 3, destroying its training centre in the process.
“About 50 heavy vehicles with explosive materials are on the territory of the plant,” Kotin said. “It’s a dangerous situation, they turned it into a military base.
“The situation has become worse over the past two weeks, when they put 14 heavy weapons vehicles in the turbine halls of reactors number one and six in number two. If any of their explosive materials were to detonate there it would cause a huge fire without the possibility of putting it out before it reaches the reactor.”
Kotin said that would trigger a nuclear disaster on the scale of the 2011 Fukushima accident with the potential to contaminate much of Europe.
The Russians have fortified an emergency control bunker and are using it as a barracks, complicating matters further by preventing engineers from gaining access in the event of a radiation leak, he added.
Staff at the nuclear power plant said they were being kept at gunpoint by Russian soldiers, and two workers told the BBC there was a daily threat of kidnapping.
“My working day is a constant stress,” said Svitlana in a text message. She and a fellow worker, Mykola, (not their real names) can only use Russian sim cards with limited signal because the Ukrainian mobile network has been disabled.
Svitlana said shells have been landing close to the plant every day. Mykola said: “The staff are now hostages of the Russians. They turned off the internet, left only landline phones, and food is available only in one single dining room. They turned the others into their bases.”
Mykola added: “Access to all roofs is prohibited, they made their observation points there. Now, more and more often, staff are kidnapped just when leaving the shift at the security gate.” The reason for the kidnappings is unclear but is thought to be about intimidating staff into keeping working at the plant.
The G7 forum has called for Russia to withdraw its troops immediately from the plant and return it to Ukraine. The International Atomic Energy Agency has described the situation as “out of control” and “suicidal”. Kyiv has called on the UN to send peacekeepers to the plant.
The plant’s office and fire station were hit another ten times by shelling on Thursday with Ukraine and Russia again blaming each other for the attack.
Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned it was a “grave hour” at a meeting of the UN security council called to discuss the ongoing situation. The UN secretary general António Guterres has warned it could “lead to disaster”.