Andrey Borodulin / AFP via Getty Images
Over the weekend, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – caught fire. It remains unclear who was behind the attack: Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the attacks. What is clear is that attacks are approaching and have damaged several important parts of the vast nuclear complex.
An NPR analysis of satellite images and posts to Twitter, Telegram and YouTube over the past month shows that escalating conflict at the plant is drawing closer and closer to critical safety systems and radioactive material, making increase the risk of a nuclear accident.
Satellite images taken by the company Planet in early July and over the weekend show Russian troops positioned inside the factory perimeter, along with some damage from military attacks around the nuclear facility. core. The fighting occurred at a time when Russia was trying to officially annex the Zaporizhzhia region, where the factory was located. Analysis from the Institute for the Study of War shows that the new nuclear tension coincided with the delivery of heavy weapons by the United States to Ukraine, which used them to recapture a significant portion of southern Ukraine over the course of the summer.
Over the weekend, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned that the situation at the power plant could spiral out of control.
“Military action that jeopardizes the safety and security of the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs,” he said. in a statement. “I strongly and urgently urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint in the vicinity of this vital nuclear facility, with its six reactors.”
Early July: A satellite image shows Russian forces encircled within the factory perimeter
Russian Army take the nuclear plant Zaporizhzhia in early March in what experts describe as a daring and reckless attack. Since then, the Russian military has firmly taken control of the facility’s six reactors, which continue to be operated by Ukrainian personnel.
A satellite image taken by Planet on July 3 shows about a dozen military vehicles parked near several administrative buildings. The Russians also set up a number of large tents on a nearby plot of land, presumably inhabited by soldiers tasked with protecting the factory.
According to Edwin Lyman, nuclear energy safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a monitoring group, being physically stationed inside the plant will inevitably affect operations. “It puts pressure on Ukrainian employees at the factory,” he said.
Dmytro Orlov, mayor in exile of Enerhodar, the town where the power plant is located, said on Ukrainian television that worker morale is at an all-time low, especially after Russian soldiers reported hitting an employee to death in July.
Late July: That Russian garrison becomes the target of Ukrainian forces
аїнські ові ювелірно відпрацювали по позиціях російських окупантів біля апорізької АЕС.
▪ Використовуючи дрон-камікадзе було знищено 3 рашисти, 12 травмовані. аметове містечко знищене пожежею, яку довго не могли загасити. pic.twitter.com/tkQfKHxoCX
– Ukrainian Defense Intelligence (@DI_Ukraine) July 22, 2022
On July 22, the intelligence wing of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine tweeted a video of an apparent drone strike on camp. The video shows an explosion near the tent causing dozens of Russian soldiers to flee. The video then shows the tents on fire. The Ukrainian ministry stated that the kamikaze drone had injured 12 soldiers and killed 3 others.
Satellite imagery corroborates that video. Low-resolution images from Planet show the strike may have occurred between July 19 and July 21. A higher resolution image from August 7 shows burn scars and damaged tents where the Russian garrison once stood.
“It showed that the Ukrainians would not hesitate to attack the Russian army inside the facility itself,” he said. Wim Zwijnenburga researcher studying the environmental effects of war for the Dutch non-profit organization PAX.
Lyman said the Ukrainians could have trusted the accuracy of their attack, but it was still a huge risk to strike inside the facility’s periphery.
“That’s clearly starting to play with fire,” he said.
Early August: The Russians may have repositioned troops and equipment next to the nuclear reactors in response to the attack
The August 7 image from Planet also shows that the military trucks first seen at the site in July appear to have disappeared.
A separate video published by Latvia-based Russian investigative journalism organization, called Insiders shows what appears to be drone footage of Russian vehicles being moved into buildings near the plant’s massive nuclear reactors.
The drone video was recorded on August 2. Although NPR was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the footage, Zwijnenburg has shown that the video was filmed. at various locations around the nuclear plant.
Some of the military trucks in the footage also match the trucks seen parked at the location in satellite images from Planet.
Russia is believed to have stored the vehicles near the reactors, but it appeared credible after the drone strike that it would move additional equipment closer, Zwijnenburg said. “They may have stored [the vehicles] there to prevent any indirect attack,” he said.
According to Lyman, moving vehicles close to important factory buildings adds an element of danger. In addition to making important buildings potential targets, trucks and armored vehicles themselves can contain dangerous ammunition or explosives in addition to nuclear reactors. “It depends on what’s in those cars,” he said.
The latest strikes strike closer to key plant components
Footage from Russian state media Zvezda Over the weekend showed flames burning near the plant’s 750kV substation, which supplies electricity both inside and outside the facility. Areas scorched by the fire are also clearly visible on the August 7 satellite image from Planet. The IAEA says that the plant’s power supply system was damaged during the strike.
Lyman says substations are vitally important to the safe operation of the plant. Nuclear reactors require the constant circulation of water through their cores to stay cool, and therefore, require electrically powered pumps.
“You don’t want to jeopardize anything that involves electrical equipment and power lines,” he said. If a plant loses power, backup diesel generators can provide water for a while, but only if they are well maintained. Lyman says that plants in the US sometimes struggle to keep their generators ready to go.
“I do not know the status of equipment monitoring and maintenance at the moment in Zaporizhzhia,” says Lyman.
A second Zvezda videos appears to show what may be parts of a rocket that exploded near the plant’s nuclear waste storage facility. The video shows the missile’s fuselage near the location, along with damage to a small support building near the dump.
Zwijnenburg said that the debris resembled a short-range artillery missile BM-27 Uragan. Both Ukraine and Russia use missiles, he said, but they are usually fired in groups or in bursts. The appearance of only one weapon is “very strange.”
“It is difficult to determine the trajectory of the missile that hit the facility,” he said. It could have been intentional or a weapon was mistakenly fired from either side.
Looking for a solution
Regardless, Russia is likely to add more firepower to the area in response to the latest attacks. On August 9, the Russian-installed administrator of the Zaporizhzhia region said on Russian TV that the Russian military has added more missile systems around the plant, ostensibly to protect against Ukrainian attacks.
Lyman, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the situation was increasingly dangerous. “There was a slow decline in safety posture at the factory,” he said. “If there’s constant active combat, chances are you’ll run into a situation that you can’t control.”
IAEA Director General Grossi said he would like to send nuclear inspectors to the site, in an effort to stabilize safety and security there.
Evgeny Balitsky, Russia’s appointed regional manager, said Russian engineers were doing maintenance on the plant and he had invited officials from the IAEA to inspect the plant. But Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Center for Nonproliferation Policy Education, a nuclear research organization, believes that pose a danger precedent.
“You have to visit the factory with a Russian passport, go through Russian territory. You can’t go through Ukrainian territory, you can’t use a Ukrainian passport, and you can’t access it by crossing the river,” he said. speak.
That also risks classifying the Ukrainian plant as belonging to Russia, which has different inspection procedures rooted in its nuclear weapons program.
“The IAEA is in a bind,” Sokolski said.
Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has argue for a demilitarized zone around the factory.
He cited the grain export agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey as a potential model. The head of Ukraine’s electricity service proposed monitoring of the United Nations peacekeeping force situation.
Others are calling for continued international pressure to find a solution.
“The only safe way to end this crisis is to create an alliance of nuclear states – Japan, South Korea, the United States, etc. – to pressure Russia to withdraw from the power plant entirely. “, Hryhoriy Plachkov, former head. of Ukraine’s nuclear regulator. “I don’t think we can get them to leave with rockets.”