Dispatch

Ukrainians Brace for the Worst Around Zaporizhzhia

Fears are rising that Russia could stage a catastrophic accident at Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant.

A view of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
A view of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
A view of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is seen across the Dnipro river from Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17. Emre Caylak Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

NIKOPOL, Ukraine—For Volodymyr Plashihin, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, just 4 miles away from his home city of Nikopol in southern Ukraine and visible on the horizon across the Dnipro river, brings back terrifying memories. 

In 1988, he spent four months serving in the military at Chernobyl, two years after it suffered the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen. When he returned home, he was immediately admitted to the hospital with severe health complications.

“Every vein in my throat was enlarged. I could barely sneeze. I couldn’t do anything. It was really hard, and I was there a long time after the worst of it,” he said, adding that he was so sick he was kept in the hospital for treatment for a month and a half. “Now it could all happen to me again—but worse. I can hardly explain the fear to anyone who has never experienced this.”

NIKOPOL, Ukraine—For Volodymyr Plashihin, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, just 4 miles away from his home city of Nikopol in southern Ukraine and visible on the horizon across the Dnipro river, brings back terrifying memories. 

In 1988, he spent four months serving in the military at Chernobyl, two years after it suffered the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen. When he returned home, he was immediately admitted to the hospital with severe health complications.

“Every vein in my throat was enlarged. I could barely sneeze. I couldn’t do anything. It was really hard, and I was there a long time after the worst of it,” he said, adding that he was so sick he was kept in the hospital for treatment for a month and a half. “Now it could all happen to me again—but worse. I can hardly explain the fear to anyone who has never experienced this.”

Plashihin, 61, keeps two full canisters of petrol at the ready and has iodine pills with him wherever he goes, yet he has decided to stay in Nikopol. His experience makes him vital to the city authority’s standby volunteer evacuation team. Memories of Chernobyl hang heavy over the residents of Nikopol, where around half of the roughly 106,000 people remain despite the threat of both nuclear meltdown and the daily barrage of Russian missiles that began about a month ago. Many residents are old enough to recall sheltering relatives who fled the country’s north from that nuclear disaster, and now, they have difficulty running to shelters to avoid incoming rockets. 

Lena Kravchuk poses for a photo.
Lena Kravchuk poses for a photo.

Lena Kravchuk, 51, a nurse who also lives in the Lapinka area, poses for a photo in her shelter in Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.

A religious painting and iodine tablets are seen in Lena Kravchuk’s home.
A religious painting and iodine tablets are seen in Lena Kravchuk’s home.

Left: A religious painting stands in Lena Kravchuk’s shelter in Nikopol, Ukraine. Right: Lena Kravchuk shows the iodine tablets she keeps in her house on Aug. 17 in case of a nuclear meltdown at the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Concern over the fate of Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s biggest nuclear station, rocketed on Friday after Russia warned of a possible Ukrainian “false flag” operation at the power plant, an accusation it has made in the past to cover its own actions. Russian forces, which have occupied the plant since the spring and have sporadically shelled it and mined it while using it as a shield against any Ukrainian counterattacks, reportedly ordered their staff away from the plant and stationed more military equipment inside, raising fears that the occupying forces could try to engineer a nuclear accident.

Despite global fears of a catastrophe—current modeling suggests radiation could spread as far west as the Czech Republic—efforts to inform residents who live close to the plant on what to do if the worst does happen have been muted. Emergency and rescue teams carried out a drill in recent days in Zaporizhzhya’s city, which remains under Ukrainian control, but Nikopol’s authorities said they believe there is no reason to panic the population.

Maksym Kostrikin, 35, head of Nikopol’s emergency services, said they have three sources to determine whether the situation has become critical: the state nuclear regulator, the region’s chief radiologist, and the plant’s operators. The third option, however, is currently out of action as the plant’s remaining Ukrainian staff are working there as Russian hostages.

If radiation levels rise above a given, but still undisclosed, level, Ukraine’s parliament will issue an order to evacuate the city. The evacuation points are already determined as well as a number of possible routes that can be decided on at the time based on wind patterns. Iodine pills—which help protect the thyroid from radioactive iodine—are already distributed to residents every four years, and more were given out in the days after the invasion. Yet many local residents said they have forgotten how to use the pills or have misplaced them. 

Oleksandr Sayuk, mayor of the Ukrainian town of Nikopol
Oleksandr Sayuk, mayor of the Ukrainian town of Nikopol

Oleksandr Sayuk, mayor of the Ukrainian town of Nikopol—which sits across the river from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant—is seen.

Nikopol’s mayor, Andrey Fisak, said his office runs a call center for those who need help or information and that there are stockpiles of iodine pills at family doctors for those who need them. For now, municipal officials busy enough trying to manage the fallout of dozens of Russian missile strikes a day.

Until a month ago, Nikopol had been relatively safe, even offering shelter to 4,500 refugees from nearby cities like Enerhodar. Residents said that when the attacks began, they only came at night. Once they’d settled into a routine, the explosions started coming at lunchtime.

Eduard, 52, a resident of the city’s Lapinka area, was watching television on the sofa at 3 p.m. on Monday when a BM-21 Grad rocket hit. His house was destroyed, and he only survived because he had stepped out to the summer house to get something minutes before—sharp twists of metal from the rocket’s casing were left in the seat where he had been sitting.

At exactly the same time and just around the corner, Konstantyn, 42; his brother Sergiy, 36; and mother, Antonina, 62, lost their roof to another strike. They ran toward their basement after hearing a nearby explosion, yet a rocket hit their own house and the blast wave threw the brothers down the stairs. They suffered minor shrapnel scratches but consider themselves lucky to have made it.

Antonina, 62, stands inside her house.
Antonina, 62, stands inside her house.

Antonina, 62, stands inside her house that was hit by a Russian rocket strike in Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.

People work on a building hit by a Russian rocket strike.
People work on a building hit by a Russian rocket strike.

People work on a building hit by a Russian rocket strike in Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.

In just a month, more than 1,300 missiles have already hit Nikopol, destroying 710 houses and killing eight people in the city, a civil defense official told FP. According to emergency chief Kostrikin, the worst night was when 80 missiles as well as four incendiary BM-21 Grad rockets hit, dropping capsules filled with an incendiary substance. According to Human Rights Watch, similar weapons were used by Russian proxies in the east of the country in 2014.

“No one knows why this is happening,” Fisak said. “Look around the city: There is no military here.”

Although a Ukrainian counteroffensive is thought to already be in motion in the country’s south, with strikes on occupied Crimea and bridges vital for Russian supplies to the Kherson region, Enerhodar remains firmly under Russian occupation. The future of the nuclear power plant—and Nikopol—remains uncertain.

Lena Kravchuk, 51, a nurse who also lives in the Lapinka area, heard an explosion for the first time in her life on July 18, when a missile hit a neighbor’s house, destroying the corner walls and pushing her to her knees. Since then, she and her husband, Anatoliy, 53, have been living among jars of pickles and marinated tomatoes in their underground larder. They also have their iodine tablets in the shelter.

Lena Kravchuk
Lena Kravchuk

Lena Kravchuk, 51, poses for a portrait. She heard her first explosion while living in the Lapinka area in Ukraine.

Sunflower fields are seen near Nikopol, Ukraine.
Sunflower fields are seen near Nikopol, Ukraine.

Sunflower fields are seen near Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 17.

“I was a kid when Chernobyl happened, and our relatives from Kyiv came here to shelter,” she said. “Now, it seems like it is our turn to do the fleeing.”

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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