Is Russia trying to cause an accident at the biggest nuclear plant in Europe?

AP Photo

John’s written a couple of posts about this in recent weeks but the situation has since gotten worse, enough so that Zelensky is now conferring with European leaders on how to handle the crisis. The single largest nuclear power plant in Europe is located in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Since early March, within the first 10 days of the war, it’s been under Russian control. You may remember the frightening reports from the night the Russian military seized the plant of a fire breaking out amid the fighting between the two sides.

Lately the Russians have begun using the plant’s grounds as … an artillery position. They’re firing shells from guns stationed there and daring the Ukrainians to fire back, knowing what might happen if an errant shot were to land in the wrong spot.

If catastrophe were to strike, there’s no telling how far the fallout might spread. The good news is that only two of the plant’s six nuclear reactors are currently online; the bad news is that a crisis at the plant could force the evacuation of at least 400,000 people and potentially send radioactive material across Europe and Russia — Chernobyl 2.0, essentially.

Engineers are confident that the Zaporizhzhia plant is far sturdier than Chernobyl facility was in 1986, with only a small risk that a shell might breach the protective concrete husk around each reactor, but other risks abound. If an explosion were to knock the water cooling system offline, the plant would be at risk of a meltdown. If a shell were to strike the plant’s primary circuit, “such kind of damage could affect the reactor pressure vessel and lead to an explosion.” Any sort of breach of spent fuel housed at the facility would also send radioactive material into the air, a de facto dirty bomb.

And then there’s the problem of an exhausted Ukrainian crew being forced to work at gunpoint to keep the plant running safely. Some Zaporizhzhia employees have fled the region, creating a worker shortage and leaving those who remain on the job to try to manage a nightmarish hostage situation.

In the months since it was seized, the plant’s Ukrainian workers describe the Russian troops in control becoming increasingly paranoid. At one point, they requested that cooling pools be emptied as Russians hunted for weapons that could be used against them, but backed down after being informed of the dangers…

“We were taught that even if there is a nuclear explosion, you have to stay until the last,” said the 40-year-old who works servicing equipment. He estimates that only around 10 percent of workers doing similar jobs to his remain.

“They are so stressed, they are not even sleeping at night,” he said. “The boiling point is really high. There is no connection to your family when you are at work. All you hear is the outgoing, you don’t know what’s happening.”

What is Russia up to? Why have they taken to using the plant as a staging ground for artillery? “[T]here appears to be little strategic advantage to its bombardment from the nuclear plant, other than spreading fear by dragging the plant into the conflict,” WaPo notes. They’re not putting the plant at risk to achieve some urgent military objective, in other words. The urgent military objective is to put the plant at risk.

Theories are kicking around to explain that. One pedestrian possibility is that they’re hoping to frighten Zelensky’s European allies into pressuring him to make concessions before another Chernobyl wrecks the continent. But if that’s their play, they’re destined to be disappointed: The Ukrainians aren’t staging daring strikes in Crimea to deplete Russian ammunition reserves because they’re about to throw in the towel. In fact, the NYT notes that Russian forces in Kherson are now at risk of encirclement, having been “largely cut off from their main source of supplies after Ukraine wrecked the last of four bridges across the Dnipro.” There are even rumors circulating that the Russian military command inside Kherson has bugged out and relocated to the left bank of the river. Ukraine isn’t surrendering anytime soon.

Which leads to a darker theory, that Putin is preparing to cause an accident at the plant and then to blame it on Ukrainian counter-shelling, a false flag operation carried out by Russian troops. A man willing to lose 75,000 troops as part of an unwinnable occupation of Ukraine is surely willing to lose a few more from a radiation spill at Zaporizhzhia, particularly if he’s calculating that a nuclear crisis really will force allies like Biden and Macron to demand that Zelensky end the war and sue for peace. Chernobyl 2.0 might be as close as the Kremlin can get to a face-saving excuse to demand a ceasefire and squat on the territory it currently controls, conveniently right in time to preserve Kherson before the Ukrainians try to retake it.

Or, if you want to go even darker than that, maybe Putin’s reached the point of desperation where he’s decided that if he can’t have Ukraine, no one can. Maybe he wants to poison the country, “salting” the earth with radiation from the plant to punish the Ukrainians for their resistance. Having Russian troops shelling around the plant might simply be a way to create an excuse when the “accident” happens that it was caused by the Ukrainians who were supposedly returning fire, not a deliberate act of sabotage by his own men.

But there’s another more mundane possibility, that what Russia is doing at Zaporizhzhia is what Russia always does in war. It’s stealing.

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.

Plant workers and independent nuclear analysts say that the explosions were caused by Russian shelling, not by the Ukrainians. Essentially, Russia seems to be conducting a sort of “Potemkin battle” at the plant in which their forces are on both sides. First, Russian artillery based at the plant fires at Ukrainian targets; then other Russian units based outside the plant and posing as Ukrainians use the shelling as a pretext to “return fire,” hoping “to destroy infrastructure, damaging power transmission lines and, as a result, cutting off power across the south of Ukraine.” They want to turn off the lights in Ukraine and reroute all of Zaporizhzhia’s output to Russian-held Crimea so they manufactured a skirmish around the base to give them an excuse to destroy power lines.

Which doesn’t bode well for their plans in Kherson, a southern province. If they’re trying to knock out power to southern Ukraine and feed it all to Crimea, does that mean they’re giving up on occupying Kherson long-term?

The irony is, Crimea is less in need of power than ever. I’ll leave you with this, evidence of how spooked the locals are that their favorite vacation getaway is now within reach of Ukraine’s army.

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David Strom 4:01 PM on October 05, 2022