Using nuclear reactors as cover, Russians lob missiles at Ukrainians


NIKOPOL, Ukraine — Along most of the front lines in the Russian war in Ukraine, when one side lets go with an artillery strike, the other fires back.

But not in Nikopol, a city deep in the southern farmland where the Ukrainian army faces a new and annoying obstacle as it prepares for a major counter-offensive: a nuclear power plant that has turned the Russian army into a fortress.

Nikopol, controlled by the Ukrainians, is located on the western bank of the Dnipro River. Across the street is a gigantic nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – which the Russian army captured in March. The Russians have been firing from cover of the Zaporizhzhya station since mid-July, Ukrainian military and civilian officials said, sending missiles across the river to Nikopol and other targets.

It’s basically a free shot. In return, Ukraine cannot fire salvos of shells using US-supplied advanced missile systems, which have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front lines. If you do, you risk ending up in one of the six pressurized water reactors or high-level waste in storage. And Russia knows it.

“They hide there so they can’t be hit,” 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 have fled Nikopol due to the dangers of both shelling and a possible radiation leak. And those left behind feel helpless, as if they were targets in a shooting gallery.

“We are like convicted prisoners who should just stand still and be fired upon,” 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 plant attacks are hampering Ukraine’s plans in the south, which has become the focal point of the war as Russia’s advance in the east has slowed down.

The Ukrainian army has been broadcasting for more than two months an intention to launch a counter-attack on the western bank of the Dnipro River, with the aim of liberating the city of Kherson. Using a US long-range missile launch system known as HIMARS, Ukraine has softened Russian positions and cut supply lines. This month, rocket attacks destroyed a road and railway bridges crucial to Russian supplies to troops on the western bank, south of Nikopol, closer to Kherson.

As the counterattack progresses, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant poses a dilemma. Russian forces have occupied the nuclear site since March 4, but only started using it for artillery strikes three weeks ago, Ukrainian officials say, about when HIMARS appeared on the battlefield. Shielded from backlash, the Russians threaten Ukrainian forces advancing towards the Nova Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River, one of the last remaining crossing points for Russian supplies.

It is a problem Ukraine will have to solve if it moves troops and equipment into the area for the counteroffensive.

The Ukrainian army’s retaliatory options in Nikopol are limited. One tactic it has tried is to launch precision attacks that minimize the risk of damaging the reactors. For example, on July 22, Ukrainian military intelligence reported an attack by a kamikaze drone that blew up an anti-aircraft installation and a Grad missile launcher, killing soldiers in a tent camp about 150 meters from a reactor.

The fighting near the power plant has renewed concerns that the war will lead to the release of radiation in a country cluttered with delicate and dangerous nuclear sites, including Chernobyl, which Russia occupied in March but left after. Last
On Friday, a huge, swirling plume of black smoke rose a few miles south of the reactors in Zaporizhzhya, and the Ukrainian military said it had hit a Russian munitions depot.

When the Russian army seized the Zaporizhzhya factory in March, the battle sparked a fire — and many nuclear safety concerns. During those battles, shrapnel hit the containment structure of reactor No. 1 but did not break through it. Three of the six reactors are now active, and the others are either inactive or under repair.

Only a direct strike with a powerful weapon would penetrate the reactors’ meters-thick concrete containment vessels, said Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the city of Enerhodar, where the reactor is located, and a former engineer at the plant. But if that happened, there would be a risk of a meltdown or explosion that could spread wind-borne radiation in Ukraine and beyond, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

Another risk is that a grenade strikes the highly radioactive spent fuel stored in concrete jerry cans and locally scatters radiation in the open air, like a dirty bomb.

The fatigue and stress of Ukrainian control room workers at the reactor are also a concern. Russian soldiers subjected them to harsh interrogations, including: torture with electric shock, suspecting them of sabotage or informing the Ukrainian army about activities at the factory, Mr Orlov said. About a dozen have disappeared after being kidnapped, he said.

The site is in a nuclear regulatory limbo. The Russian army controls the factory, but Ukrainian engineers operate it. The Russians are letting Ukrainian truck convoys across the front line with spare parts and chemicals needed to process cooling water. Ukrainian nuclear regulators also cross the front to visit the plant. Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, has sent about a dozen engineers to check its operation.

Across the river in Nikopol, hospitals have an emergency supply of iodine tablets to treat radiation exposure, a precaution that dates back to before the war. Little else can be done to protect the population, said Mayor Sayuk.

Last Friday the walking trails on the riverside esplanade were deserted, although it was a beautiful day.

The trails overlooked the nuclear power plant’s cooling towers and the nearby black column of smoke—all bad news for Nikopol residents. Those who stay in the city usually stay at home.

In the past three weeks, Russia’s Grad army has parked several rocket launchers between reactor buildings to protect them from retaliatory attacks, said Mr Orlov, who is in contact with factory workers.

The Russians have also parked an armored personnel carrier and Ural military trucks in the turbine chamber of reactor No. 1. The vehicles are blocking a fire access route, Mr Orlov said, posing a danger to the entire plant. His claims could not be independently verified.

The strikes have seemingly indiscriminately hit homes on the outskirts of the city, cratering vegetable gardens, setting fires and blowing out windows.

The house of Mrs. Hrashchenkova was hit by an artillery shell that failed to explode, sparing her and her home. Elsewhere in the city, artillery smashed roofs and blew holes in brick walls.

The agency has also publicly called on residents of nearby Enerhodar to engage in partisan resistance that would pose no risk to the factory. The mayor of Enerhodar, installed in Russia, was injured in a bomb attack in May. This month, a Russian field kitchen at the station mysteriously exploded, injuring soldiers.

And Ukrainian artillery officers have no qualms about targeting the Russian army in Enerhodar, about two miles from the plant. Over the night from Thursday to Friday, explosions destroyed two cars and damaged a hotel where Russians were stationed, injuring eight soldiers, Orlov said.

“The Russian military is starting to feel uneasy and understand that they are not there forever, as they say, but soon they will either be killed or surrender to Ukrainian captivity,” Petro Kotkin, the president of Ukraine’s National Nuclear Power Company, Energoatom, Ukrainian news media told.

Yet the nuclear power plant presents a unique challenge that Ukraine had not faced earlier in the war.

Colonel Serhiy Shatalov, who led a Ukrainian infantry battalion on a creeping, village-wise advance towards the Nova Kakhovka dam, said Russian artillery had largely gone silent after a few weeks of HIMARS attacks — except from Russian units at the nuclear power plant.

“How can we respond?” he said. “This is a nuclear site.”

About the Russians’ use of the reactors as cover, he said, “Don’t look for fairness in war, especially when you’re fighting the Russians.”

Yurii Shyvala reported.

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