SEurope’s largest nuclear power plant has been in a war zone for months. Shots are being fired around the provincial capital, Zaporizhia, from small and larger guns. People are dying and many more people are fleeing. Should a reactor accident happen here, nobody will be able to say: It was a tsunami, it happened suddenly like in Fukushima. The Russian army has been occupying the area for six months. The first bad news, the nocturnal video of a star outshining everything, presumably a flare, which landed right in front of the power plant buildings, reached the world on March 4th.
Zaporizhia means behind the rapids. In the double sound, which is rendered with “schsch” in German, one thinks one hears the rushing of the waters of the mighty Dnipro. The city lies on this river, called the Dnieper in Russian.
Here, between Kyiv and the Black Sea, on an island in the middle of the river, the Cossacks lived until Tsarina Catherine II had her island taken by troops. It is a mythical place for the Ukrainians, and so they have rebuilt the settlement of the Cossacks on the island in recent years. Tourists like to come here. The island also took hits in this war. Today, however, the world fears above all for the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.
“Russians shot indiscriminately at the nuclear plant site”
In peacetime, a good half of Ukraine’s total electricity consumption depended on the six reactor blocks of this power plant. “In the winter we produced almost 6,200 megawatts there,” says Petro Kotin, president of the state-owned company Enerhoatom, which operates the nuclear power plants in the country. “Last weekend, however, we completely shut down Zaporizhia. That’s safer. After all, our company is responsible for nuclear safety here.”
The 61-year-old Kotin receives in his office in Kyiv. Like many politicians, he now wears olive green uniforms. A map of Ukraine with the power lines hangs on one wall, and an idyllic-looking picture of the power plant on another. He knows Zaporizhia inside out, until two years ago he was the boss there.
Kotin tells what happened when the Russians approached the power plant at night on March 4: “They fired indiscriminately, including at the site of the nuclear plant. Rather accidentally, I think, a tank hit the first reactor block.” The thick wall held up. “The shroud is designed to withstand the crash of a 500-ton aircraft. But a big rocket would probably penetrate them.”
“Diversion” of electricity to Russia
After the conquest, the occupiers parked their military equipment close together in two of the turbine halls where the electricity is produced. Now the Russian tactics are as follows: “First they fire in the direction of the power plant area, for example with mortars. Then they accuse the Ukrainian army of shelling. We have many witnesses who confirm that only one to three seconds elapse between launch and impact, i.e. firing from a short distance. There are no Ukrainian troops in this close vicinity. And then the Russians say they have to react. And fire at Nikopol and Marhanets, for example.” The locations are on the other side of the Dnieper.
Another problem is that Russian troops are shelling the lines connecting the power plant to the Ukrainian power grid. They wanted to disconnect it and then connect it to the Russian network via Crimea. “They shoot up the lines, we restore them where possible, and they shoot them up again.” So far, the Russians have not succeeded in “diverting” the electricity; the power plant has been idle for a short time anyway. But the fuel rods still heat up and then have to be continuously cooled, which requires electricity.