NIKOPOL, Ukraine — As with most of the front line in Russia’s war in Ukraine, when one side is spared from an artillery attack, the other shoots back.
But not in Nikopol, a city in the southern agricultural country where the Ukrainian military faces a new and sinister obstacle as it prepares for a major counterattack: a nuclear power station that the Russian military 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 massive nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest – which was captured by Russian forces in March. Ukrainian military and civilian officials have sent rockets up the river at Nikopol and other bases, saying Russians have been firing from cover of the Zaporizhzhya station since mid-July.
Basically, it’s a free shot. Ukraine could not in turn fire shells using advanced rocket systems provided by the US, which have silenced Russian guns elsewhere on the front line. Doing so would risk hitting one of the six pressurized water reactors or highly radioactive waste in storage. And Russia knows it.
“They are hiding there so they can’t be killed,” Nikopol mayor Oleksandr Sayuk said. “Why else would they be at the power station? It’s too dangerous to use such an object as a shield.”
Residents are fleeing Nikopol because of the dangers of both shelling and a possible radiation leak. And those who remain feel helpless, as if they are targets in a shooting gallery.
“We are like condemned prisoners who must stand still and be shot,” said one retiree, whose home was hit by Russian artillery. “They shoot at us, and we can’t do anything.”
The nuclear plant strikes are complicating Ukraine’s plans in the south, which has become a focal point of the war as Russian progress in the east slows.
The Ukrainian army has been telegraphing for more than two months its intention to launch a counterattack on the west bank of the Dnipro River, with the goal of liberating the city of Kherson. Using a long-range American rocket-launching system known as HIMARS, Ukraine is softening Russian positions and cutting off supply lines. Rocket strikes this month destroyed a road and rail bridge to resupply Russian forces on the west bank, south of Nikopol, near Kherson.
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As the counter-attack intensifies, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant becomes a question mark. The Russian military has occupied the nuclear site since March 4, but began using it for artillery strikes three weeks ago, Ukrainian officials say, when HIMARS appeared on the battlefield. Shielded from return fire, Russians block Ukrainian troops from advancing towards Novaya Kakhovka Dam on the Dniepro River, one of the last remaining crossing points for Russian supplies.
This is a problem that Ukraine will have to solve as it moves troops and equipment to the region to retaliate.
The Ukrainian military’s retaliatory options in Nikopol are limited. One tactic he has tried is to carry out precise strikes, so as to avoid the risk of damaging the reactors as much as possible. For example, on 22 July, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency reported an attack with a kamikaze drone, which blew up an anti-aircraft installation and a Grad rocket launcher, and which flew about 150 yards from a reactor. Killed soldiers in a tent camp.
Fighting near the power plant has rekindled concerns that the war would set off the release of radiation in chokeblocks a country with fragile and dangerous nuclear sites, including Chernobyl, which Russia captured in March but then abandoned. Gave. The last
On Friday, a huge, swirling plume of black smoke rose a few miles south of the reactors, and the Ukrainian military said it had hit a Russian ammunition depot.
When the Russian military seized the Zaporizhzhya plant in March, the war came under fire – and a good deal of concern about nuclear safety. In that fight, shrapnel hit but did not break reactor No. 1’s control structure. Three of the six reactors are currently active, and the others are inactive or undergoing repairs.
Only a direct strike with a powerful weapon would penetrate the reactors’ yard-thick concrete containment vessels, said the exiled mayor of the city of Enerhodar, where the reactor is located, and Dmitry Orlov, a former engineer at the plant. But if it did, it would risk a meltdown or explosion that could spread radiation onto the air in Ukraine and beyond, as happened in Chernobyl in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Another risk is that a shell could collide with highly radioactive spent fuel stored in concrete canisters and spread radiation locally in the open air, like a dirty bomb.
The fatigue and stress of Ukraine’s control room staff at the reactor is also a concern. He has been subjected to harsh interrogation by Russian troops, including Torture them with electric shock, suspecting them of sabotage or informing the Ukrainian military about activities at the plant, Mr. Orlov said. He told that about a dozen have disappeared after kidnapping.
The site is in a nuclear regulatory limbo. The Russian military controls the plant, but Ukrainian engineers operate it. The Russians allow Ukrainian truck convoys with the chemicals needed to process spare parts and cold water into the front line. Ukrainian nuclear regulators also cross the front lines to visit the plant. Russian state nuclear company Rosatom has sent about a dozen engineers to oversee its operation.
Across the river in Nikopol, hospitals keep an emergency supply of iodine tablets to treat radiation exposure, a precaution that took place before the war. Nothing more can be done to protect the population, Mayor Mr Sayuk said.
The walkways on the city’s riverfront esplanade were deserted last Friday, though it was a beautiful day.
The path overlooked the nuclear plant’s cooling tower and a nearby column of black smoke—all of which were ill-fated for Nikopol residents. Most of the people who live in the city stay in their homes.
Over the past three weeks, the Russian military has parked Grad multiple rocket launchers between reactor buildings to protect them from retaliatory attacks, said Orlov, who has been in contact with plant workers.
The Russians also parked an armored personnel carrier and Ural military trucks in the Turbine Room of Reactor No. Vehicles blocked access to the fire, Orlov said, posing a threat to the entire plant. Their claims could not be independently verified.
The strikes are randomly hitting homes in the outskirts of the city, piercing potholes in vegetable gardens, setting fires and blowing out windows.
Ms. Hershchenkova’s house was hit by artillery shells that did not explode, leaving her and her home to be saved. Elsewhere in the city, artillery crushed roofs and pierced brick walls.
The agency has publicly appealed to residents of nearby Enerhodar to join partisan resistance that would not pose a risk to the plant. The Russian-established mayor of Enerhodar was injured in a bombing in May. This month, a Russian field kitchen at the station mysteriously exploded, injuring soldiers.
And Ukrainian artillery officers have no problem targeting Russian forces at Enerhodar, which is about two miles from the plant. Explosions on the night of Thursday to Friday destroyed two cars and damaged a hotel where the Russians had quartered, wounding eight soldiers, Mr. 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 surrender to Ukrainian captivity,” the National Atomic Energy Company of Ukraine, Petro Kotkin, president of Energotom, told Ukrainian news media.
Nevertheless, the nuclear plant presents a unique challenge that Ukraine has not had to deal with before in war.
Colonel Serhi Shatalov, who is leading a Ukrainian infantry battalion advancing from village to village towards the Nova Kakhovka Dam, said that the Russian artillery had mostly calmed down after a few weeks of the HIMARS attacks – leaving Russian units except nuclear power plants.
“How can we answer?” They said. “It’s a nuclear site.”
Regarding the Russians’ use of reactors for cover, he said, “Don’t look for fairness in war, especially if you fight the Russians.”
Yuri Shivala contributed reporting.