“I always believed that after the Chernobyl disaster, the Russians weren’t crazy enough to risk another one,” he said. “But every day they are committing acts of terror, near or even inside each of our nuclear plants. The possibility of another catastrophe is high.”
Chernobyl, while out of commission, is home to thousands of spent cooling rods that, if not cared for properly, could lead to increased radioactive leaks at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster 36 years ago.
Russian soldiers have occupied the site since the first day of the war and have stationed heavy weapons on it, Ukraine’s Energy Minister German Galushchenko said in an interview. On Thursday night, he said some Russian troops were withdrawing from the “main part” of the siege, but others remained and “no one can predict their next steps.”
Militarization was not the only threat. The plant’s Ukrainian staff have not had a day off since March 20 and hardly sleep. A power outage could interrupt the ventilation system and cause overheating.
At Europe’s largest nuclear plant near Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, which has been under Russian occupation since March 4, Galushchenko said between 300 and 500 Russian soldiers and up to 100 heavy vehicles, including tanks, were stationed. within the perimeter of the plant. To take control of that plant, Russian forces fired artillery shells at one of the refrigeration units.
“They intentionally shelled it with tanks. That was crazy,” Galushchenko said. “We were very close to a disaster. The first unit of the plant was attacked. It was on fire. It shows what they are willing to do.”
In addition to the one in Varash, two other smaller Ukrainian plants are still under Ukrainian control. More than half of Ukraine’s electricity is provided by nuclear plants, and despite being under Russian control, the plant in Zaporizhzhia still supplies the Ukrainian grid, albeit at a reduced capacity. Electricity consumption has also been reduced across the country, as more than a quarter of the population has been displaced; a considerable proportion of industries and businesses have closed or been destroyed; and lights across the country are turned off at night to reduce the risk of buildings being targeted by Russian bombardment.
Varash, on the other hand, continues as usual. The more than 8,000 workers at the city plant are exempt from compulsory military service. Few have fled. Buses carrying workers to and from the plant, which looms over the entire city, bounce along wide boulevards as their families go about their daily lives.
The plant, which was built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is the city’s sole reason for existence. About 30 miles south of the Belarusian border, Varash is otherwise relatively isolated and in one of the few areas of Ukraine that is still covered in forest.
Here, residents worry about a reckless Russian attempt to take over the plant or even an errant projectile causing a release of radiation.
City officials are already taking steps to prepare, including giving 50,000 residents potassium iodide tablets, which can help block the absorption of radioactive iodine in humans during prolonged exposure.
The mayor, Oleksandr Menzul, 49, worked for 25 years as a security adviser at the plant, planning various scenarios that could trigger a collapse.
“We never estimated the risk of Russian bombing,” he said. “Because it’s silly, right? Varash doesn’t even have bomb shelters, because who would bomb a city with a nuclear facility? But for Russia, an international disaster is just one mistake away. International law is a mat on which one’s feet are wiped.”
Menzul reassures himself that, in the event of a Varash disaster, prevailing winds could carry the brunt of radioactive steam from an explosion to nearby Belarus or areas of Ukraine now occupied by Russia.
“If it blows in the direction of the enemy, there is at least some benefit for us,” he said, laughing nervously.
This week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Ukraine to offer technical assistance and met with Galushchenko and other top officials.
“There have already been several close calls. We cannot afford to waste any more time”, said Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the agency, in a statement. “This conflict is already causing unimaginable human suffering and destruction. The IAEA’s experience and capabilities are needed to prevent it from also causing a nuclear accident.”
But Ukrainian officials have criticized the IAEA for not calling Russia directly, which they say would draw more attention to risks at nuclear facilities that, if bombed or otherwise damaged by Russia, could lead to disaster. with regional and potentially global implications.
“What I told you yesterday was that we need political signals, political action from you,” Galushchenko said. “Technical assistance is fine, but what does it mean when our plants are occupied by Russian soldiers? When Russia is using our plants as shields against counteroffensives?
The recent downing of two Russian drones over Varash, which was confirmed by Vitaly Koval, the regional military administrator, has raised questions about possible Russian surveillance of plants far from the front line.
The city is on edge. Despite being accompanied by a local government bodyguard, the visiting reporters were questioned by police. Citizens were apparently worried that the journalists might be Russian saboteurs.
It is also a city full of memorials of past disasters. A monument to the victims of Chernobyl stands out in the center of the city. Not far away is one of the victims of the Second World War. And a memorial to those killed in the ongoing war is already being planned.
“It should be a peaceful town, but it smells of fear,” said the local caretaker.