NIKOPOL, Ukraine – Along most of the front lines in Russia’s war in Ukraine, when one side loosens up with an artillery attack, the other returns fire.
But not in Nikopol, a city deep in the southern farmlands, where Ukrainian troops face a new and irritating obstacle as they prepare for a major counterattack: a nuclear power plant. which the Russian Army has turned into a fortress.
Nikopol, controlled by the Ukrainians, is located on the West bank of the Dnipro River. On the opposite side is a huge nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – which the Russian Army captured in March. Ukrainian military and civilian officials said that Russia has been firing from the shell of the Zaporizhzhia station since mid-July, while sending missiles across the river at Nikopol and other targets.
Actually, it is a free shot. Ukraine cannot launch salvoes in response with advanced US-supplied missile systems, which have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front line. Doing so would risk attacking one of the six reactors with pressurized water or highly radioactive waste being stored. And Russia knows it.
Oleksandr Sayuk, mayor of Nikopol, said: “They are hiding there so they cannot be attacked. “Why are they at the power station? Using such an object as a shield is very dangerous.”
People have fled Nikopol because of the risk of shelling and potential radiation leaks. And those who stayed felt helpless, as if they were targets in a shooting gallery.
“We were like convicts who just stood still and were shot,” said Halyna Hrashchenkova, a retiree whose home was hit by Russian artillery. “They shot at us, and there was nothing we could do.”
Attacks from the nuclear plant are complicating Ukraine’s plans to the south, which has become the focus of the war as Russia’s advances in the east have slowed.
The Ukrainian army for more than two months has been telegraphing its intention to counterattack on the west bank of the Dnipro River, with the goal of liberating the city of Kherson. Using an American long-range missile launcher system called HIMARS, Ukraine calmed Russian positions and cut supply lines. Missile attacks this month destroyed a key road and rail bridge for Russian supply forces on the west bank, south of Nikopol, near Kherson.
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When the counterattack began, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant posed a difficult situation. Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have occupied the nuclear site since March 4 but only started using it for artillery attacks three weeks ago, about when HIMARS appeared on the battlefield. Shielded from return fire, the Russians are threatening Ukrainian troops moving towards Nova Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River, one of the last remaining crossing points to supply Russia.
This is an issue that Ukraine will have to deal with as it moves troops and equipment into the area for a counterattack.
Retaliation options of the Ukrainian Army in Nikopol are limited. One tactic it has tried has been to execute precision attacks to avoid as much as possible the risk of damaging the reactors. For example, on July 22, Ukraine’s military intelligence service reported an attack by a kamikaze drone that blew up air defenses and a Grad missile launcher and killed the soldiers in a tent camp about 150 meters from the reactor.
Fighting near the power plant has raised fears that the war will spread radiation in a country with many dangerous and sophisticated nuclear sites, including Chernobyl, which Russia occupied in March but was later abandoned. Last
On Friday, a huge cloud of black smoke rose a few miles south of the reactors, and the Ukrainian military said it hit a Russian ammunition depot.
When the Russian Army seized the Zaporizhzhia plant in March, the war was on fire – and a lot of worry about nuclear safety. During that skirmish, shrapnel hit but did not breach the containment structure of Reactor 1. Three of the six reactors are currently operational, and the others are idling or undergoing repair. .
Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the city of Enerhodar, where the reactor is located, and a former engineer at the plant, said that only a frontal attack with strong weapons could penetrate concrete vessels. cardboard as thick as the courtyard of a reactor. But if it did, it would run the risk of melting or exploding that could spread radiation upwind in Ukraine and beyond, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. .
Another risk is that a shell could hit highly radioactive spent fuel stored in concrete canisters and release localized radiation outdoors, like a dirty bomb.
The fatigue and stress of the Ukrainian control room staff at the reactor is also a concern. Russian soldiers subjected them to harsh interrogations, including Torture with electric shock, suspect them of sabotage or inform the Ukrainian military about activities at the plant, Orlov said. About a dozen people disappeared after being kidnapped, he said.
The site is in limbo over nuclear regulation. The Russian military controls the plant, but Ukrainian engineers operate it. The Russians allowed convoys of Ukrainian trucks to cross the front lines carrying spare parts and chemicals needed to treat cooling water. Ukraine’s nuclear regulator also went ahead to visit the plant. Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company, has sent about a dozen engineers to oversee its operations.
Across the river in Nikopol, hospitals urgently supply iodine tablets to treat radiation exposure, a pre-war precaution. There is much more that can be done to protect the population, said Sayuk, the mayor.
Last Friday, the walking paths on the city’s riverside promenade were deserted, even though it was a beautiful day.
The walkways overlook the nuclear plant’s cooling tower and the nearby column of black smoke – all of which bode well for the residents of Nikopol. Those who stay in town mostly stay in their homes.
Over the past three weeks, the Russian military has placed several Grad missile launchers between the reactor buildings, to protect them from retaliatory attacks, said Orlov, who is in contact with the reactor’s staff. factory said.
The Russians also parked an armored personnel carrier and a military truck Ural in the turbine room of Reactor 1. These vehicles blocked access to the fire, Orlov said, endangering the entire plant. . His assertions cannot be independently verified.
Strikes have hit seemingly random homes in the city’s remote district, punching craters in vegetable gardens, catching fire and blowing windows.
Ms. Hrashchenkova’s home was hit by an unexploded shell, injuring her and her home. Elsewhere in town, artillery tore down rooftops and punctured brick walls.
The agency has also publicly urged residents of nearby Enerhodar to participate in partisan resistances that pose no risk to the plant. The mayor of the Russian-installed Enerhodar was wounded in a bombing in May. This month, a Russian field stove at the station mysteriously exploded, injuring soldiers.
And Ukrainian artillery officers had no qualms about targeting Russian troops in Enerhodar, about 2 miles from the plant. Overnight from Thursday to Friday, explosions destroyed two cars and damaged a hotel where the Russians quarried stones, injuring eight soldiers, Orlov said.
“The Russian military is starting to feel insecure and understand that they are not there forever as they say, but they will soon be killed or surrendered to Ukraine’s captivity,” said Petro Kotkin, president of the nuclear power company. national Ukraine, Energoatom, told the Ukrainian news media.
However, the nuclear plant still poses a unique challenge that Ukraine has never faced before during the war.
Colonel Serhiy Shatalov, who led a battalion of Ukrainian infantry in a village-by-village advance towards the Nova Kakhovka Dam, said Russian artillery had been mostly inactive after several weeks of hitting HIMARS – except for Russian units at the nuclear power plant.
“How can we answer?” he say. “This is a nuclear site.”
Regarding the Russians’ use of reactors for cover-ups, he said, “don’t seek justice in war, especially if you’re fighting the Russians.”
Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting.