Ukraine worries about disaster as Russia targets nuclear power plants
The cooling towers of the Rivne nuclear power plant on March 25 in Varash, Ukraine. Varash is less than 90 miles from Belarus, which has served as a staging ground for Russian troops. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) By Max Bearak March 31 at 11:00 pm Taiwan Time VARASH, Ukraine — The director of the largest nuclear power plant still under Ukrainian control was exhausted, curt with his replies and fidgeting with his glasses, which he turned around and around in his hands. In the past two weeks, Ukraine’s military said it has shot down two Russian drones that approached as close as three miles from the plant in the northwestern city of Varash, which supplies 12 percent of the country’s electricity — but that wasn’t even the biggest of Pavlo Pavlyshyn’s concerns. “I always believed that after the Chernobyl disaster, Russians weren’t insane enough to risk another one,” he said. “But every day they are committing acts of terror, near or even inside each of our nuclear plants. The chance of another catastrophe is high.” Chernobyl, while decommissioned, houses thousands of spent cooling rods that if not properly cared for could lead to an increase in radioactive leaking at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster 36 years ago. A memorial dedicated to the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster stands in Varash, Ukraine. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) Russian soldiers have occupied the site since the first day of the war and have stationed heavy weaponry on it, Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushchenko, said in an interview. On Thursday evening, he said some Russian troops were withdrawing from the “main part” of the site but others remained and that “no one can predict their next steps.” Militarization wasn’t the only threat. Ukrainian staff at the plant haven’t had a day off since March 20 and are barely getting sleep. A power outage could disrupt the ventilation system and lead to overheating. (The Washington Post) At Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, near Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine — which has been under Russian occupation since March 4 — Galushchenko said between 300 and 500 Russian soldiers and as many as 100 heavy vehicles including tanks were stationed within the plant’s perimeter. To take control of that plant, Russian forces fired artillery shells into one of the cooling units. “They intentionally shelled it with tanks. That was craziness,” Galushchenko said. “We came very close to a disaster. The first unit of the plant was hit. It was on fire. It shows what they are willing to do.” [Latest updates from the Ukraine war] Besides the one in Varash, two other smaller Ukrainian plants are still under Ukrainian control. More than half of Ukraine’s electricity is provided by nuclear plants, and despite being under Russian control, the plant in Zaporizhzhia is still supplying the Ukrainian grid, though at a reduced capacity. Electricity consumption is also down across the country as more than a quarter of the population has been displaced; a sizable proportion of industries and businesses have either closed or been destroyed; and lights across the country go off at night to reduce the risk of buildings being a target of Russian shelling. Varash, on the other hand, is carrying on much as usual. The town’s 8,000-plus plant workers are exempt from conscription into the military. Few have fled. Buses carrying workers to and from the plant, which looms over the whole city, bounce along wide boulevards while their families go about their daily lives. People walk through a market area in Varash, Ukraine, on March 25. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post) The plant, which was built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is the entire reason for the city’s existence. About 30 miles south of the border with Belarus, Varash is otherwise relatively secluded and in one of the few areas of Ukraine that is still largely forested. Here, residents worry about a reckless Russian attempt to take over the plant or even an errant shell causing a release of radiation. City officials are already taking steps to prepare, including giving 50,000 residents potassium iodide tablets — which can help block the absorption of radioactive iodine in humans during prolonged exposure. The mayor, Oleksandr Menzul, 49, worked for 25 years as a safety adviser at the plant, planning for various scenarios that could trigger a meltdown. “We never estimated risk of Russian shelling,” he said. “Because it’s nonsense, right? Varash doesn’t even have bomb shelters, because who would bomb a city with a nuclear facility? But for Russia, an international disaster is just one mistake away. International law is a doormat that they clean their feet on.” Menzul calms himself with the possibility that in the event of a disaster in Varash, prevailing winds might carry the worst of the radioactive steam from a blast into nearby Belarus or areas of Ukraine now occupied by Russia. “If it blows in the enemy’s direction, at least there is some benefit to us,” he said, nervously chuckling.