‘Crazy things are happening’: life in occupied Ukrainian nuclear city
Olexander lives in Enerhodar – a satellite city for the Zaporizhzhia power station where he used to work. An accident or artillery attack are constant fears
Russian servicemen on guard at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in Enerhodar, south-eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA
OlexanderFri 19 Aug 2022 13.08 BST Last modified on Fri 19 Aug 2022 19.09 BST
I dedicated my life to nuclear power and have always been proud to be part of it. For many people like me, the Zaporizhzhia plant is our pride and destiny. There are six powerful units, about half of the capacity of all Ukrainian nuclear plants and a quarter of the country’s entire energy sector. Before the war, 11,000 people worked here.
More than 50,000 people live in Enerhodar. We have been living under occupation for almost six months. It’s like a double occupation – the city and the nuclear plant have been captured.
- Our faith is constantly being tested. Ten days ago, we were sure that the city and the inhabitants would not suffer. But there are already wounded from the shelling at the station. There are already victims in the city.
The station and the city are almost a single whole, because these are places where people work and live. The station continues its struggle for existence. It is full of Russian military vehicles and soldiers. Only two power units are in operation, not at full capacity. Salaries are being paid. Many employees work remotely.
In the nuclear industry, we investigate any deviation in the operation of equipment or a mistake of personnel. Corrective actions have to be taken after that. Now such crazy things are happening at the station, such as the delivery of military equipment to the turbine halls of power units, damage to equipment as a result of shelling the station’s territory, and even, according to some information, the mining of the building.
A Russian serviceman on guard at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in south-east Ukraine. Photograph: AP
There were reports of people being kidnapped, including station workers. It’s hard to describe the feeling when you read about the kidnapping of a person you know personally.
The situation changed dramatically 10 days ago, when the Russians began firing at the station and the outskirts of the city. They hit a high-voltage line, buildings on the station territory, and the spent nuclear fuel storage. The city was left without electricity for several hours.
Since then, every day and every night we hear the roar of artillery salvos. Sometimes the Russians drive their artillery so close that it sounds like shooting in a neighbouring yard. Window glasses tremble. It feels like the whole house is shaking. Even those who do not believe in God pray for their salvation. Sometimes it happens in the middle of night. An ordinary person cannot distinguish the sounds of an artillery salvo and a shell burst. Therefore, every time it seems that this is an explosion and the next projectile will hit your house.
- We know that they are hitting the opposite bank of the Dnieper – the cities of Nikopol and Marganets. A few seconds after the first salvo, an alert is activated in Telegram channels – get to a shelter! Someone is trying to save people day and night. In the morning we read how many houses were destroyed and how many people were killed and injured. For many years these cities perceived our nuclear plant as a source of mortal danger. Now real death is flying from us to them. We can only commiserate with them.
Enerhodar is a young city. We love and are proud of it. Now it seems to be seriously ill. Kindergartens and schools were closed immediately after the invasion. Although boys play basketball every day on the playground in front of the school, children’s voices on the street are heard less and less. This is a city of disappearing children.
The occupying authorities, which I, fortunately, do not encounter, force people to write prices in hryvnias and rubles. I do not understand where the rubles come from here, except for those that were distributed to some pensioners. Maybe it’s an important part of their reports to Moscow.
There is cold and hot water and electricity in the city. In this regard, we have always been under protection of the nuclear plant. Instead of three mobile operators, a Russian “no name” one appeared, using local equipment. Several internet providers have been restored but the traffic passes through Russia, with all Russian internet bans and limitations.
Doctors at the hospital are receiving salaries but, as far as I know, there are huge problems with medicines. It is better not to get sick at this time.
Here we also have the Zaporizhzhia thermal power plant, the largest in Ukraine. It was shut down due to damage to the railway bridge and the impossibility of delivering coal.
All billboards in the city are used for Russian propaganda – covered in quotes from Putin and phrases about one people – Russian and Ukrainian. Before that, portraits of Soviet generals from the second world war and heroes of the Soviet Union hung there. People pass by indifferently.
Russian flags hang over the city hall and elsewhere, although faded ones.
- People are leaving the city. I often notice that someone from my apartment block has not been seen for a long time. In any case, everyone is trying to send children and wives to the unoccupied territory or abroad. Two days ago, my neighbour could not stand it and evacuated his children. You can struggle against your own fear but it is impossible to fight fear in the eyes of your children.
It is possible to exit the city, but just a week ago, at the checkpoint in Vasilievka, where the line of demarcation runs, there was a queue of thousands of cars from various occupied regions and people stood there for several days.
Men stay. Most of them perceive work at the nuclear plant as their duty. Nuclear power workers in Ukraine are legally exempt from conscription, so it’s like their military service. But all the same, staff members are leaving, including operational ones.
Despite everything, we continue to believe that all this will end soon. As long as we believe, the station continues to work, and the city continues to live.