Quiet has descended upon Enerhodar, a Ukrainian city whose failed attempt to prevent a Russian military attack delivered the local nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, into Moscow’s control this week.
But in a community grateful the unprecedented assault did not create a radiation leak, life is now edged with fear that an accident could still happen.
“It is quite calm at the moment. But we cannot be sure that it will continue like that,” Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov said. “Because any provocation from any side may lead to consequences. Something could still happen. So this quiet situation is very unstable.”
Two of the six reactors at the city’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station are now generating electricity, and radiation levels remain normal, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Saturday.
But a day after the attack, more evidence emerged of how close Russian ammunition had come to causing major, potentially catastrophic damage to the facility, which generates roughly a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.
During the attack, Russian forces used tanks and other heavy artillery against members of the National Guard of Ukraine, three of whom died trying to protect Zaporizhzhia. A shell struck a training centre on the power plant grounds, sparking a fire that damaged the upper floors of the building. It was extinguished hours later.
The training centre is set at a distance from the reactors. But on Saturday, pictures, video and interviews showed that other shells had landed much closer to sensitive parts of the plant. One munition, which workers believe was a tank shell, struck the large protective block that surrounds the first reactor – a direct hit on a concrete structure that contains the reactor control room and other vital equipment.
The block withstood the impact, Petr Kotin, the head of Energoatom, a state company that runs all of Ukraine’s nuclear plants, told Deutsche Welle.
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“Power units are even designed to withstand a plane crash, but you can’t expect them to last long if there’s heavy rocket artillery fire,” he said. This was “actually an act of nuclear terrorism,” he added.
Rounds also tore through an administrative building located less than 50 metres from the first reactor. Photos released Saturday by Energoatom showed windows and ceiling tiles shattered by the attack, which left a fist-sized hole in a wall. Other rounds damaged a laboratory and knocked out a telephone line.
More rounds struck what power plant workers call a “dirty” overpass – a structure with many pipes that run into the reactor complex. They carry acids, high-pressure steam, water and radioactive substances. A video viewed by The Globe and Mail shows a large shell casing lying an arm’s length away from some of those pipelines. The camera pans to show the second reactor immediately outside of a broken window. A pipe is bent.
“Another shell flew in and probably flew out the window,” a voice says. “And there are still more.”
The camera swings back to the pipelines, showing rubble on the floor. Above them, a hole has been punctured through the roof of the overpass. A broken piece of the structure lies on the floor. A short walk down the corridor toward the first reactor reveals another hole in the roof.
Though the nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia are fortified, the plant makes use of highly flammable substances, including hydrogen and oils – which, if they had been ignited by a shell, could have produced cataclysmic results.
The dangers are underscored by a video of the control room in the third reactor during the attack. A public address system loudly repeats a warning message to the Russian attackers.
“You are endangering the security of the entire world,” the voice says. “Stop firing immediately.”
A map released by Energoatom on Saturday shows the estimated spread of radiation within 72 hours in the event of a nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia. It shows a cloud extending from Tbilisi to Istanbul.
But technical safety systems at Zaporizhzhia remain “intact,” the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Saturday. Crews have been allowed to change shifts, after those working during the attack spent 29 hours on duty. That is different from the situation at the Chernobyl nuclear site – also seized by Russian forces – where technical personnel and guards have not been able to change shifts since Feb. 23.
In Enerhodar, meanwhile, the war ravaging the country has raised further concerns for Mr. Orlov, the mayor. If an accident happens, it’s no longer clear people will be able to evacuate. “If something terrible happens in a reactor, or if there is an explosion at the station, people will have to stay here. They won’t be able to do anything,” he said.
He also worries about the 11,000 employees at Zaporizhzhia who must now, on their way to work, pass Russian soldiers maintaining an armed vigil over the station’s entrance. It’s a disconcerting presence that he believes is dangerous.
“People are nervous and tense,” said Mr. Orlov, who previously spent a decade as a lead engineer for turbine control at the plant.
“I am certain the presence of the Russian military is causing negative psychological effects on the people who work at the station,” he said. “And I can’t exclude the possibility of that producing bad consequences.”
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