Moscow says it now runs Europe’s largest nuclear plant, causing chaos and confusion

The control room of a nuclear reactor.
The control room of a nuclear reactor.
Getty Images

Publish date: October 19, 2022

In the days since Moscow held a forced vote annexing four regions in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in the Zaporizhzhia oblast is now Russian property.

The residents of Enerhodar, the city built to house the Ukrainian workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, would beg to differ. According to a September poll taken of the company town’s residents, only 6 percent favored becoming part of Russia.

Recent gains by Ukrainian troops in the Donestk, Luhansk and Kherson regions also belie Moscow’s claims to greater control. But battlelines in the Zaporizhzhia region have stagnated around the plant, with fears of hitting its six reactors and pools of spent nuclear fuel standing in the way of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Putin’s orders to bring the plant under Russian control are intensifying the quandaries faced by the Ukrainian employees who have worked throughout the war to prevent a nuclear catastrophe at the complex.

Directly following Moscow’s force referendums last month, Russian troops detained Igor Muratov, the Zaporizhzhia plant’s director, then  released a video of him saying he was collaborating with Ukrainian intelligence. Then they and expelled him from Russian-held territory.

In the following days, the plant’s deputy director as well as its director of human resources were also detained by Russian forces. Both remain missing.

Following Putin’s order, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom created a subsidiary, with $2 billion of startup capital, called The Joint Stock Company Operating Organization of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, using the Russian spelling for the location. At the same time, Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power operator, has said he himself is now the plant’s director.

Kotin has also implored technicians at the plant not to sign any contracts with Russian occupiers in response to reports that plant employees are under pressure to start working for Rosatom — and threatened with conscription into Moscow’s army if they don’t.

However, should the technicians caught in this dilemma sign on with Rosatom, they face prosecution by Kyiv for collaborating with Russia’s invading forces, said Dmitry Gorchakov, a nuclear power analyst with Bellona.

“They’re in an almost hopeless situation,” Gorchakov said. “And this is the main problem, in addition to the nuclear safety issues, that should be discussed and not forgotten.”

The uncertainty over who is in charge further imperils the security of the plant as hostilities continue, Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement last week.

“Staff at the plant are being forced to make a hugely difficult decision for themselves and their loved ones,” Grossi said. “The enormous pressure they are facing must stop.”

In a highly unusual move, Grossi also took a side in the conflict for the first time since Russian forces seized Zaporizhzhia in March. Grossi told reporters in Kyiv that “the position of the IAEA is that this facility is a Ukrainian facility.”

On Monday, it was reported that Rosatom had given the about 3,000 remaining staff members — down from 11,000 before the war — until Thursday, October 19, to make a choice: work for Rosatom or else.

“If they don’t sign the statement [to work for Rosatom], they won’t have a livelihood, to feed their family, children,” a worker who left the plant this summer and made his way to Ukrainian-held territory told the Wall Street Journal. “If they sign, they will be a traitor and a collaborator…it all stinks.”

Meanwhile, despite cycling down all six of the plant’s rectors into cold shutdown mode for safety reasons early September, both Energoatom and Rosatom are mulling restarting at least a few of them to gird against the coming cold months. It might be the one thing on which the two sides agree.

For reactors to restart, said Gorchakov, the safety of outside power lines bearing electricity for the plant’s critical cooling and safety systems must be assured.

That’s unlikely, given recent developments. For the past several days, energy infrastructure supplying the plant has been the focus of shelling, forcing technicians to power cooling and safety systems with diesel backup generators — a move widely seen by nuclear experts as the last defense against possible meltdown.

On Monday, Russian shells destroyed the only substation supplying the plant with electricity from the Ukrainian grid was damaged before dawn, again forcing the plant to rely on generators, presumably until the substation is repaired.

“I think that the fight against infrastructure is now the fight for the station in the miltary sense,” said Gorchakov. “It is terrible that at the same time the station is constantly shutting down, increasing the risk of an accident.”

Combined, Zaporizhzhia’s 20 diesel generators should keep cooling systems running for as long as 10 days — provided they have access to fuel, certainly not a given in the midst of a war zone.