Ukraine: Living in front of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia nuclear power plant: “This could be the second Chernobyl” | International

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Ostriv beach, mid-May 2023. On the shore there are several Czech sea urchins placed by the Ukrainian Army. They are anti-tank defense obstacles made up of metal bars that are intended to prevent a landing of Russian troops. Next to them stands the wall of the dam, which is mined for the same purpose. On the other side are swings, exercise bars, and blue and white wooden benches. And an abandoned and flooded trench. Opposite, on the other side of the Dnieper River, the six nuclear reactors of the Energodar power plant (in the Zaporizhia province), the largest in Europe, in Russian hands since March 4, 2022, days after the start of the war, loom threatening. invasion of Ukraine. Olga Muja is looking at them: “If this blows up, there will only be a shadow of us left”.

A sign clearly warns that bathing is prohibited, but last summer it was not very respected. The neighbors continued getting into the water and sunbathing trying to keep life going. But it's hard to forget the war in this village. Distant explosions are heard every so often. Ostriv is located between the Russian positions and Nikopol and Marganets, in the Dnipropetrovsk province, two cities that were constant targets of Putin's artillery. Ostriv is located in the attack trajectory towards both municipalities.

“Most of the people have left here,” says Olga, who is 66 years old. “We hear shots every day, Grad rockets, artillery, and we are very scared. I don't understand what this war is about or why they want to kill us." She assures that she will not leave, that this is her home and that she wants to continue working her garden and taking care of her chickens and her 100 fruit trees. One of her six children is fighting. He is now stationed on the dangerous Bakhmut front. She calls her often:

Hello, I'm fine, I'm alive.

Olga Muja, 66, with a neighbor in the garden of her house in the village of Ostriv (Dnipropetrovsk province), on the banks of the Dnieper River and in front of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, occupied by the Russians since March 2022 .LOUIS DE VEGA

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Two of Olga's neighbors, Raisa Sitnichenko, 76, and Valentina Riabchenko, 73, explain that they receive humanitarian aid once a month, that they are given food and water, and that there have been very difficult times. Valentina sometimes goes to sleep with her son at Marganets when things get really ugly. “These houses are old and we don't have shelters,” laments Raisa.

The nearest large city to Ostriv is Nikopol, also opposite the Energodar power station. The road between the two is full of partridges and, above all, pheasants. Since hunting has been prohibited for more than a year, due to the war, there are many more of them and they walk calmly along the roads with their long tails and colorful feathers.

In Nikopol explosions are heard again and the six nuclear reactors of Energodar appear again, on the other side of the Dnieper. Nikopol is a red zone, as defined by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Red zone means that journalists cannot access without express authorization and must be accompanied at all times by a military official.

Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, two residents of Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk province.
Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, two residents of Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk province.LOUIS DE VEGA

Under martial law, decreed in February 2022 with the start of the invasion, the Army has enormous powers, even above fundamental rights such as information or freedom of movement. Authorization to access a red zone may arrive in a few days or may never arrive, depending on the priorities of the moment. The Bakhmut front is a red zone, following the logic that the lives of journalists are in extreme danger there and the movement of troops is secret. A city like Nikopol is closed due to its proximity to Energodar. From undetermined locations on this stretch of the Dnieper, Ukrainian special forces have probed Russian defenses in the center with lightning strikes.

Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, walk past a four-story building in Nikopol that was bombed on August 11 at two in the morning. They live next door. “It scared us a lot,” Raisa recalls. “Now they attack us every day, several times a day.” They are very concerned about the proximity of the nuclear power plant. “This could be the second Chernobyl,” says Raisa. In this city in northern Ukraine, the greatest nuclear catastrophe in history occurred in 1986.

The mayor of Energodar before the Russian occupation is confident that the Ukrainian Army's counteroffensive will be successful and will be able to retake the plant. His name is Dmitro Orlov, he is 37 years old, now he lives in Zaporizhia and works remotely. He speaks from a center set up to provide humanitarian aid and support of all kinds to the inhabitants of Energodar who fled. “Before, about 53,000 people lived there and now about 15,000 remain,” he explains. "Some went abroad, but most are in Ukraine waiting for the liberation of the city to return home."

before they lived there [en Energodar] about 53,000 people and now about 15,000 remain.

Dmitro Orlov, Mayor Energodar

VIDEO | The mayor of Energodar explains the risks of the nuclear power plant under Russian occupation.

The nuclear power plant produces almost no electricity. All six reactors are in minimal mode. Neither is the neighboring thermoelectric station. Before the invasion, Energodar generated half of Ukraine's nuclear-based electrical power. “We hope that the counter-offensive will be successful so that the plant can resume its activities, generate much-needed electricity and the city can return to normal life,” says Orlov.

A mission of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the safety of the plant since September last year. The agency's director general, Rafael Grossi, warned this week that the plant had lost all external power for the seventh time during the conflict, forcing it to rely on emergency diesel generators. “The nuclear security situation at the plant is extremely vulnerable,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must reach an agreement to protect the plant now. This situation cannot continue."

Oleksii Blinechuk worked at the plant until last summer. He then went to Zaporizhia with his family. He says that the Russians have hired people with no experience. “These are people who have nothing to do with the energy sector and who shouldn't be there,” he says. He continues to keep in touch with some of the colleagues who still work there.

VIDEO | An employee of the Energodar Nuclear Power Plant recounts what life was like under Russian rule.

The Zaporizhia front may be the most decisive of the war, as the intelligence services of the United States and the United Kingdom have publicly highlighted. It is also underlined by the Ukrainian military in the area and defense analysts. "Everyone is watching Bakhmut, but what happens here is more important," Stepan, an officer of the Artey infantry battalion, told this newspaper last February.

Zaporizhia would allow Ukrainian troops to advance towards the coast of the Azov Sea without having to face a landing on the Dnieper River, a complex feat like few others according to military theory. Ukrainian troops would advance, liberating the province, especially a strategic municipality like Energodar. The next stage, a fundamental victory, would be to reach the city of Melitópol, on the coast of the Azov Sea. From Melitopol, kyiv's armies could cut off supplies to the invading forces along the coast, toward Kherson, the Black Sea, and the Crimea.

If the Ukrainian advance takes place from Zaporizhia, each urban center can be a stronghold for the Russian defenses and the combats can end up destroying entire populations, as happened with the counteroffensives in the provinces of Kherson or Kharkiv. But if the Russians maintain their military positions at the nuclear power plant, the risk will not be that a village will be razed to the ground, but that millions of people will only be left in their shadow, as Olga warned. The question is whether the Kremlin would order its troops to withdraw if surrounded or whether it would continue to play the atomic blackmail card.


Coordination and format: Guiomar del Ser and Brenda Valverde

Art direction and design: Fernando Hernandez

Layout and programming: Alexander Gallardo

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