What's happening at Zaporizhzhia? Inside the standoff at Ukraine's largest nuclear plant

LONDON — Since the beginning of the war, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine has been under Russian control.

On March 4, Kremlin-led forces captured the plant after an overnight attack — pushing it toward the frontline of Russia’s brutal invasion. Footage of bombs striking the plant sparked panic in the international community, conjuring up memories of one of the largest nuclear catastrophes in history, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — the remains of which lie more than 400 miles away from Zaporizhzhia.

Black-and-white image of what appears to be an explosion near metal towers.
A still from video of shelling and a firefight at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the early hours of March 4. (Cover images via ZUMA Press)

A fire that broke out close to one of the plant’s six reactors earlier this year was put out in time by Ukrainian authorities.

“Any attack to nuclear plants is ... suicidal,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Aug. 8 as he called for the plant to be demilitarized.

Workers ‘kept hostage’

Of the 55,000 people who lived in the surrounding small city, 11,000 worked at the plant, the New York Times reported. On the day it was captured, most of the employees fled in fear of a Russian attack. However, a number of engineers have been kept hostage at the plant in order to keep the reactors safe. “The employees are literally working at gunpoint,” an engineer named Olha told the Times.

Petro Kotin, president of Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power utility, claimed to Sky News that around 1,100 personnel who had been captured at Zaporizhzhia were tortured while being forced to operate the plant. “Every day, in the morning, we have contact with plant management, because the plant is operated under our control,” Kotin said. “The conditions of our staff there are really decreasing.”

‘Stealing nuclear energy’

Energoatom said last week it believes Russia is attempting to remove the plant — which produces up to 6,000 megawatts of power — from the Ukrainian electricity grid and link it to its own. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy, with about half the country’s electricity coming from nuclear power.

A Russian serviceman wearing fatigues and a helmet and holding a rifle stands near industrial buildings.
A Russian serviceman patrols area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on May 1. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)

However, Kotin said, it would be nearly impossible for Russia to divert the power to its own system. “We are connected to the European system, but Russia is desynchronized from our system,” he said. “So before any reconnection to another system, you need to completely shut down from one system, then you connect to another system ... but we believe they won’t be able to do that because the lines which connect Zaporizhzhia with Crimea are damaged, they are heavily damaged at the moment.”

‘Nuclear shield’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using the plant strategically as a form of protection — shielding troops, weapons and ammunition. In doing this, Russia has stopped Ukraine from damaging its stock and soldiers on the assumption that an attack would cause a meltdown or nuclear disaster.

“Of course the Ukrainians cannot fire back lest there be a terrible accident involving the nuclear plant,” Blinken said, adding that Russia isn’t using a “human shield,” but rather a “nuclear shield.”

People in full rubber suits and gas masks hold hoses and spray a man lying on his back on a table inside a tent next to an orange bucket labeled: Let's do this.
Members of the State Emergency Service attend nuclear disaster response drills at the plant on Aug. 17. (Dmytro Smolienko/Reuters)

This month, officials in both Kyiv and Moscow have accused each other of targeting the site. On Aug. 12, Ukraine said it was preparing plans to evacuate civilians living in towns surrounding the plant. “The level of danger is the highest,” Denys Monastyrskyi, Ukraine’s interior minister, said. Two days later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of nuclear “blackmail” — claiming that artillery had been fired from the direction of the site. Zelensky said Russian soldiers who use the plant as shelter would become a “special target” for Ukrainian intelligence.

Nuclear negotiations

On Tuesday, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged Ukraine and Russia to allow experts to visit the site in an effort to prevent a nuclear accident. In what appeared to be a step forward, the IAEA said it could visit the plant “within the next few days” if the talks succeed.

Ukraine representative to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya sits at a curved desk near Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, among others seated between them and in chairs behind them.
Sergiy Kyslytsya, left, Ukraine's permanent representative to the United Nations, and Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya, right, at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Tuesday. (Timothy A. Clarey/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’m continuing to consult very actively and intensively with all parties,” the agency’s chief, Rafael Grossi, said in a statement. “The mission [to Zaporizhzhia] is expected to take place within the next few days if ongoing negotiations succeed.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed it had allowed for an inspection in June, but blamed officials in Ukraine for disrupting the plan. “We express our deep regret that the mission has not yet taken place,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

It comes days after French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a possible nuclear threat. The Kremlin leader reportedly told Macron that he would allow independent inspectors into the plant.