NIKOPOL, Ukraine – Along much of the front line of Russia’s war in Ukraine, when one side rages with an artillery attack, the other retaliates.
But not in Nikopol, a city in the south of an agricultural country where the Ukrainian army faces a thorny new obstacle as it prepares for a major counteroffensive: a nuclear power plant that the Russian army has converted in a fortress.
Ukrainian-controlled Nikopol sits on the west bank of the Dnipro River. On the opposite bank is a gigantic nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – which the Russian army captured in March. The Russians have been firing from cover at the Zaporizhzhia station since mid-July, Ukrainian military and civilian officials said, sending rockets over the river at Nikopol and other targets.
This is actually a free shot. Ukraine cannot unleash volleys of shells in return using advanced rocket systems supplied by the United States, which have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front line. This would risk hitting one of the six pressurized water reactors or highly radioactive waste in storage. And Russia knows it.
“They are hiding there so as not to be touched,” said Oleksandr Sayuk, the mayor of Nikopol. “Why else would they be at the power plant? Using such an object as a shield is very dangerous.
Residents fled Nikopol due to the dangers of shelling and possible radioactive leakage. And those who remain feel helpless, as if they were targets in a shooting gallery.
“We are like death row inmates who just have to stand still and get shot,” said Halyna Hrashchenkova, a pensioner whose home was hit by Russian artillery. “They’re shooting at us, and there’s nothing we can do.”
The nuclear power plant attacks complicate Ukraine’s plans in the south, which has become the focal point of the war as Russian advances in the east have slowed.
The Ukrainian army has been telegraphing for more than two months its intention to counter-attack on the west bank of the Dnipro, the objective being to liberate the city of Kherson. Using an American long-range rocket-launching system known as HIMARS, Ukraine softened Russian positions and cut off supply lines. This month, rocket fire destroyed a road and railroad bridges critical to resupplying Russian forces on the west bank, south of Nikopol, closer to Kherson.
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As the counterattack resumes, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant poses a dilemma. Russian forces have occupied the nuclear site since March 4 but began using it for artillery strikes only three weeks ago, Ukrainian officials said, of when HIMARS appeared on the battlefield . Safe from returning fire, the Russians threatened Ukrainian troops advancing towards the Nova Kakhovka barrage on the Dnipro, one of the last remaining crossing points for Russian supplies.
This is a problem Ukraine will have to address as it moves troops and equipment into the area for the counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian army’s options for retaliation in Nikopol are limited. One tactic he has tried is to execute precision strikes that avoid, as much as possible, the risk of damaging reactors. On July 22, for example, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency reported a strike with a suicide drone that blew up an anti-aircraft installation and a Grad rocket launcher and killed soldiers in a tent camp about 150 meters away. of a reactor.
The fighting near the plant has rekindled concerns that the war will trigger a release of radiation in a country crammed with delicate and dangerous nuclear sites, including Chernobyl, which Russia occupied in March but then abandoned. Last
On Friday, a huge plume of black smoke rose a few miles south of the Zaporizhzhia reactors, and the Ukrainian military said it hit a Russian ammunition depot.
When the Russian military seized the Zaporizhzhia plant in March, the fighting sparked a fire and raised widespread nuclear safety concerns. During this fighting, shrapnel hit but did not pierce the containment structure of Reactor No. 1. 1. Three of the six reactors are currently active and the others are inactive or undergoing repairs.
Only a direct hit with a powerful weapon would penetrate the reactors’ meter-thick concrete containments, said Dmytro Orlov, the mayor-in-exile of the town of Enerhodar, where the reactor is located, and former power plant engineer. But if it did, it would risk a meltdown or explosion that could send radiation down the wind in Ukraine and beyond, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Another risk is that a shell could hit the highly radioactive spent fuel stored in concrete containers and locally spread the radiation in the open, like a dirty bomb.
The fatigue and stress of Ukrainian workers in the reactor control room are also of concern. Russian soldiers subjected them to harsh interrogations, including tortured with electric shocks, suspecting them of sabotage or informing the Ukrainian army about the activities of the factory, Mr. Orlov said. About a dozen disappeared after being abducted, he said.
The site is in a nuclear regulatory vacuum. The Russian military controls the plant, but Ukrainian engineers operate it. The Russians allow convoys of Ukrainian trucks to cross the front line with the spare parts and chemicals needed to treat the cooling water. Ukrainian nuclear regulators also cross the front to visit the plant. Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, sent a dozen engineers to monitor its operation.
Across the river in Nikopol, hospitals are keeping an emergency supply of iodine tablets to treat radiation exposure, a pre-war precaution. Nothing else can be done to protect the population, said Mayor Sayuk.
Last Friday, the walking paths of the city’s waterfront esplanade were deserted, even though the weather was fine.
The walkways overlooked the cooling towers of the nuclear power plant and the nearby column of black smoke, which bodes ill for the residents of Nikopol. Those who stay in the city most often stay at home.
Over the past three weeks, the Russian military has parked several Grad rocket launchers between reactor buildings to protect them from retaliatory strikes, said Orlov, who is in contact with plant workers.
The Russians also parked an armored personnel carrier and military trucks from the Urals in the turbine hall of reactor No. 1. 1. The vehicles are blocking an access route for firefighters, Mr. Orlov said, posing a danger to the entire plant. His claims could not be independently verified.
The strikes hit houses seemingly at random in the outskirts of town, cratering vegetable gardens, starting fires and blowing out windows.
Mrs. Hrashchenkova’s house was hit by an artillery shell which failed to explode, sparing her and her husband. Elsewhere in the city, artillery crushed rooftops and ripped holes in brick walls.
The agency also publicly called on residents of nearby Enerhodar to engage in partisan resistance that would not pose a risk to the plant. The mayor of Enerhodar, installed by the Russians, was injured in a bomb attack in May. This month, a Russian field kitchen at the station mysteriously exploded, injuring soldiers.
And the Ukrainian artillery officers had no qualms about targeting the Russian army at Enerhodar, about three kilometers from the factory. During the night from Thursday to Friday, explosions destroyed two cars and damaged a hotel where Russians were stationed, injuring eight soldiers, Mr. Orlov said.
“The Russian army is beginning to feel uneasy and to understand that they are not here forever, as they say, but soon they will either be killed or delivered to Ukrainian captivity,” Petro said. Kotkin, chairman of Ukraine’s national nuclear energy company, Energoatom. told Ukrainian media.
Yet the nuclear plant presents a unique challenge that Ukraine has not faced before during the war.
Collar. Serhiy Shatalov, who was leading a Ukrainian infantry battalion on a creeping village-by-village advance towards the Nova Kakhovka Dam, said the Russian artillery had mostly quieted down after a few weeks of HIMARS strikes – except Russian units at nuclear power plant.
“How can we respond?” I said, “It’s a nuclear site.”
Of the Russians’ use of reactors for cover, he said, “don’t seek fairness in war, especially if you’re fighting the Russians.”
Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting.