Using nuclear reactors for cover, Russians fire missiles at Ukrainians

NIKOPOL, Ukraine — Along much of the front line in Russia’s war in Ukraine, as one side fires artillery, the other fires back.

But not in Nikopol, a city deep in the southern countryside, where the Ukrainian military faces a new and vexing obstacle as they prepare for a major counteroffensive: a nuclear power plant that the Russian army has turned into a fortress.

Nikopol, controlled by the Ukrainians, lies on the western bank of the Dnieper. On the opposite bank is a gigantic nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – that the Russian army seized in March. According to Ukrainian military and civilians, the Russians have been firing from behind the cover of the Zaporozhye station since mid-July, firing rockets over the river at Nikopol and other targets.

Basically, it’s a free shot. Ukraine cannot return a salvo of artillery shells using advanced missile systems provided by the Americans that have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front line. This could lead to the destruction of one of the six pressurized water reactors or highly radioactive waste in storage. And Russia knows it.

“They are hiding there so that they cannot be hit,” said Alexander Sayuk, the mayor of Nikopol. “Why else would they be in a power plant? It is very dangerous to use such an object as a shield.”

Residents are leaving Nikopol because of the danger of both shelling and potential radiation leakage. And those who remain feel helpless, like targets in a shooting gallery.

“We are like convicts who should just stand still and be shot at,” said Galina Grashchenkova, a pensioner whose home came under Russian artillery fire. “They’re shooting at us and there’s nothing we can do.”

Attacks from the nuclear plant are complicating Ukraine’s plans in the south, which has become the focus of the war as Russia’s eastward advance has slowed.

The Ukrainian army has been telegraphing for more than two months about its intention to launch a counterattack on the western bank of the Dnieper in order to liberate the city of Kherson. Using an American long-range missile system known as HIMARS, Ukraine softens Russian positions and cuts supply lines. This month, rocket attacks destroyed the road and rail bridges needed to supply Russian troops on the western bank, south of Nikopol, closer to Kherson.

If the counterattack continues, the Zaporozhye nuclear plant will create a quandary. Russian forces have occupied the nuclear facility since March 4 but only began using it for artillery strikes three weeks ago, Ukrainian officials say, when HIMARS appeared on the battlefield. Protected from return fire, the Russians threaten Ukrainian forces advancing towards the New Kakhovka Dam on the Dnieper River, one of the last remaining crossing points for Russian resupply.

This is a problem that Ukraine will have to solve by transferring troops and equipment to the counteroffensive area.

The possibilities of a retaliatory strike by the Ukrainian army in Nikopol are limited. One of the tried and tested tactics is targeted strikes that avoid the risk of damage to the reactors as much as possible. On July 22, for example, the military intelligence service of Ukraine reported a kamikaze drone strike that blew up an anti-aircraft gun and a Grad rocket launcher and killed soldiers in a tent city about 150 meters from the reactor.

Fighting near the power plant has renewed fears that the war will release radiation in a country littered with fragile and dangerous nuclear facilities, including Chernobyl, which Russia occupied in March but then abandoned. Last
On Friday, a huge plume of black smoke rose several miles south of the reactors in Zaporozhye, and the Ukrainian military said it had entered a Russian munitions depot.

When the Russian army seized the Zaporozhye plant in March, the fighting sparked a fire and serious nuclear safety concerns. In this battle, the fragments hit, but did not penetrate the containment of reactor No. 1. 1. Three of the six reactors are currently operating, the rest are idle or being repaired.

Only a direct hit with a powerful weapon can pierce the reactors’ yard-thick concrete containments, said Dmitry Orlov, the exiled mayor of the reactor’s city of Energodar and a former plant engineer. But if that happens, there is a risk of a meltdown or explosion that could spread radiation downwind within Ukraine and beyond, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, when the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred.

Another risk is that the projectile could hit highly radioactive spent fuel stored in concrete casks and spread radiation locally into the open air like a dirty bomb.

The fatigue and stress of the Ukrainian staff of the control room at the reactor is also a concern. Russian soldiers subjected them to harsh interrogations, including tortured with electric shocks, suspecting them of sabotage or informing the Ukrainian military about activities at the plant. Orlov said. According to him, about a dozen disappeared after the kidnapping.

The site is in the nuclear regulatory limbo. The Russian military controls the plant, but it is run by Ukrainian engineers. The Russians are moving convoys of Ukrainian trucks through the front line carrying spare parts and chemicals needed to treat the cooling water. Ukrainian nuclear regulators are also crossing the front to visit the plant. Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company, sent about a dozen engineers to oversee its work.

On the other side of the river at Nikopol, hospitals keep a stockpile of iodine tablets to treat radiation exposure, a precaution adopted before the war. Little more can be done to protect the public, Mr. Sayuk, mayor.

Last Friday, the footpaths along the city’s waterfront were deserted, although it was a beautiful day.

The paths led to the cooling towers of the nuclear power plant and a column of black smoke nearby – all this foreshadowed trouble for the Nikopol residents. Those who stay in the city mostly stay at home.

For the past three weeks, the Russian military has placed Grad multiple rocket launchers between the reactor buildings to protect them from retaliatory strikes. Orlov, who is in touch with the workers of the plant.

The Russians also parked an armored personnel carrier and Ural military trucks in the engine room of reactor No. 1. 1. Vehicles are blocking the entrance to the fire, Mr. Orlov said, posing a danger to the entire plant. His claims could not be independently verified.

The strikes hit homes in a seemingly random fashion on the outskirts of the city, punching holes in vegetable gardens, starting fires, and blowing out windows.

Mrs. An artillery shell hit Grashchenkova’s house, which did not explode, sparing her and her house. In other parts of the city, artillery shattered roofs and punched holes in brick walls.

The agency also publicly called on residents of nearby Energodar for partisan resistance that would not pose a threat to the plant. The Russian-appointed mayor of Energodar was injured in a bomb blast in May. This month, a Russian field kitchen at a train station mysteriously exploded, injuring soldiers.

And Ukrainian gunners have not hesitated to target the Russian military at Energodar, which is about two miles from the plant. On the night of Thursday to Friday, explosions destroyed two cars and damaged the hotel where the Russians were quartered, eight soldiers were injured. Orlov said.

“The Russian military is beginning to feel uncomfortable and understand that they are not there forever, as they say, but soon they will either be killed or handed over to Ukrainian captivity,” said Petr Kotkin, president of Ukraine’s national nuclear energy company Energoatom. This was reported by the Ukrainian media.

However, the nuclear power plant presents a unique challenge that Ukraine has not had to face before during the war.

Colonel Sergei Shatalov, who led a Ukrainian infantry battalion slowly advancing from village to village to the Novaya Kakhovka dam, said that after several weeks of HIMARS strikes, Russian artillery was largely silent, except for Russian units at the nuclear test site. power station.

“How can we answer?” he said. “It’s a nuclear facility.”

Of the Russians’ use of reactors for cover, he said, “Don’t look for justice in a war, especially if you’re fighting the Russians.”

Yuriy Shivala provided the report.