Workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine are quitting in droves to get clear of what they believe might be another “Chernobyl-like” catastrophe in the making.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex in southeastern Ukraine has become a hotbed of conflict in the six months since Russia invaded the country. In March, the plant was captured by Russian forces, although Ukrainian technicians still operate it.
Caught in the crosshairs of the war, damage to the plant complex was inevitable. Occupation of the plant by Russian forces is also hampering safety inspections and the replacement of critical parts, said experts. The ongoing conflict is also putting a huge strain on the hundreds of staff running the plant.
Elena, a worker at the plant, told CNN that the “constant explosions” around the plant had her fearing for her son’s life and her own. After sticking it out for nearly six months, she decided to leave after a colleague was killed by Russian troops, who frequently get drunk and fire their machine guns into the air, she alleged.
Another employee at the plant, Daria, claimed there has been a “crazy outflow of staff” in recent weeks over fears of what the enemy forces might do next. Workers are under immense psychological pressure as their numbers dwindle, and every day, they live in a “state of powerless anger.”
“We have people leaving en masse, dozens of them, in packs,” Daria told CNN.
Petro Kotin, president of Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power operator Energoatom, told CNN that Ukrainian staff at the Zaporizhzhia plant is working in “very dangerous” conditions. Recently, a video showed that Russian forces had placed 20 trucks in two turbine halls at the complex.
“We believe there (are) explosive materials inside these trucks,” Kotin said. “And that is very dangerous.”
Kyiv and Moscow have frequently traded blame for the plant’s precarious state. Ukrainians have accused the Russian troops of using the plant as a shield and risking serious damage to it, while the Kremlin has claimed that Zelenskyy’s forces are shelling the nuclear complex.
The latest incident is testimony to this back-and-forth.
‘ONE STEP AWAY FROM NUCLEAR DISASTER’
On Wednesday, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed a nuclear disaster was averted by a whisker after shelling by Russian forces cut off electricity to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant for several hours.
“Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans one step away from a radiation disaster,” Zelenskyy said,
He said that due to damage to the power transmission in the Russian shelling, two of the six nuclear reactors that are still operational went offline. The plant’s emergency backup diesel generators had to be activated to supply power needed to run them.
On the other hand, Zaporizhzhia’s Russian-installed regional governor, Yevgeny Balitsky, blamed the transmission-line damage on a Ukrainian attack.
Zelenskyy has accused Russia of “nuclear blackmail” at Zaporizhzhia. Pleas by the UN to withdraw all troops and military equipment from the plant and setting up of a demilitarised zone around it have far been in vain.
An armed conflict near a working atomic plant is troubling for many experts and people living nearby.
Liudmyla Shyshkina, a 74-year-old widow who lives in the town of Nikopol next to the Zaporizhzhia power plant, said she believes the Russians are capable of intentionally causing a nuclear disaster.
Paul Bracken, a national security expert and professor at the Yale School of Management, told Reuters the concern was that artillery shells or missiles could puncture the reactor walls and spread radiation around potentially a large area, much like the 1986 accident involving the Chernobyl reactor.
A failure at the Zaporizhzhia plant could “kill hundreds or thousands of people, and damage environmentally a far larger area reaching into Europe,” Bracken said.
“Anybody who understands nuclear safety issues has been trembling for the last six months,” Mycle Schneider, a consultant and coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, told the Associated Press.
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