Inside Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant: A Time Bomb

Former workers warn of mismanagement under Russian control — Wendell Steavenson.

Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine — Boris, a nuclear engineer who was born in 1968 in Poltava, had a successful career at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. After studying at Kharkiv University, he moved to Energodar, a city built for power plant employees. His work was both demanding and fulfilling, and he fell in love with a colleague, Ludmila, with whom he had two daughters. «I was happy… I was learning, growing and I had a loving family,» Boris recalls. «Then the war began.» — writes the Economist.

In the first days of the 2022 invasion, Russian forces seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. In April this year, a drone reportedly exploded on the roof of one of the reactors, with each side blaming the other. Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warned: «We are on the verge of a dangerous nuclear incident.»

Since summer 2022, IAEA observers have been stationed in Zaporizhzhia, although Russian military restrictions prevent their access. Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s nuclear agency Energoatom, fears that poor maintenance and proximity to the front line could force the plant to close permanently. The useful life of the nuclear fuel has already expired, raising serious concerns about the future of the plant.

The constant threat of power outages and accidents

Intermittent rocket fire often disrupts power supplies. Diesel generators do serve as a backup, but their fuel supplies are uncertain. Kotin warns that if the generators fail during the outage, it could lead to a catastrophic «Fukushima-like accident.» All six reactors are currently in cold shutdown mode, but maintaining the cooling systems is critical to prevent the spent fuel from overheating.

Before the invasion, the power plant employed 11,000 people. Now only about 4,000 remain, with many of the original employees replaced by underqualified new hires. Those who refused to sign contracts with the Russian Atomic Energy Agency RosAtom are banned from the plant.

Life under occupation

Boris left Energodar last fall and now lives in Poltava, but his wife still works at the plant. He described the first days of the occupation: thousands of residents tried to block the Russian advance but were quickly overwhelmed. Despite the danger, Boris and his team of engineers continued to work to avert nuclear disaster.

At first, RosAtom engineers observed without interfering. However, as the occupation continued, Russian forces began to control the plant more aggressively. Workers faced constant searches, random house searches and the threat of detention. Mobile phones were banned and communication with Energoatom was carefully monitored.

A climate of fear

The workers were regularly taken for questioning to the «cellar» under the local police station. Many were beaten and tortured. Boris himself was detained after Russian authorities found pro-Ukraine messages on his phone. He was kept in a cramped cell but managed to avoid physical abuse.

As conditions at the plant deteriorated, leaks of water and boron — chemicals used to control nuclear reactions — were discovered. Energoatom ordered the shutdown of two reactors to prevent accidents. After a power outage in September 2022, diesel generators were used for the first time as backup.

Betrayal and isolation

Boris was even more tense when he discovered his wife’s name on a leaked list of employees who signed contracts with RosAtom. Their relationship suffered as a result and they lived separately in the same apartment. Boris struggled with feelings of betrayal and uncertainty about the future.

At the end of 2023, when the Ukrainian counter-offensive had made no significant progress, more and more people began to flee Energodar. The only viable escape route was a convoluted route through occupied Ukraine, Russia, and then through the Baltics and Poland back to Ukraine.

In September 2023, FSB officers raided Boris and Ludmila’s apartment. Boris was detained and tortured with electric shocks. His hidden pro-Ukrainian items were discovered, leading to further persecution.

The situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains dangerous. Due to poor maintenance, lack of qualified personnel and constant threats from the ongoing conflict, there is a high risk of nuclear disaster. The war drags on and the fate of Europe’s largest nuclear facility hangs in the balance, with its workers caught in a dangerous and divisive occupation.