The first sign of danger came when the dwindling crew of Ukrainian technicians running the Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power station noticed that officers from Russia’s state atomic energy company had left the premises without explanation. It was Aug. 5, and Russian soldiers were patrolling the facility.
Then, at 2:40 p.m., explosions rocked an electrical switchboard, triggering the shutdown of one of only two remaining power lines running from the plant into southern Ukraine, according to plant workers. Outside, smoke billowed from a crater a few hundred yards from a substation; inside, technicians raced to check the backup diesel generators that would be needed to cool nuclear fuel at risk of overheating in an accident.
It wasn’t errant shelling likely to cause nuclear disaster, but a deliberate step in Russia’s wider goal: stealing Zaporizhzhia’s power by severing its connection to Ukraine’s remaining territory, according to Ukrainian leaders, international nuclear-power experts and the plant’s staff.
“What Russia is trying to do is the utility equivalent of annexation,” said Suriya Jayanti, former energy chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
She said the expropriation of such a large supply of cheap and reliable power would ripple through energy markets, leaving Ukraine dependent on the European Union, where electricity prices last week hit record highs. “Russia stealing a nuclear-power plant is a problem for Europe,” she said.
In the 10 days since the launch of the attack, more than a dozen missiles and rockets have struck the grounds around the nuclear plant, a 6.7 gigawatt facility that provided about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before the war.
The blasts have triggered Ukraine’s latest and most perilous nuclear safety crisis since the disaster in 1986 at Chernobyl, and left the International Atomic Energy Agency scrambling for details on conditions inside a plant that it now says is “out of control.” The U.S. and the EU have called for a demilitarized zone around the complex. A coalition of 42 countries on Sunday said Russia should withdraw from the power plant and allow Ukrainian authorities to resume control. [Continue reading…]