Recognition…David Guttenfelder for the New York Times
Kyiv, Ukraine — With Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant still disconnected from the national grid as of Friday morning, concerns grew not only about the plant’s safe operation but also about the consequences for millions of Ukrainians, many of them in Russian-controlled regions live the south.
Ukrainian engineers were able to restore damaged external power lines after repeated shelling Thursday to ensure the plant is able to meet its own power needs and continue to operate safely, Ukrainian and international officials said.
But with fires surrounding the plant, fresh shelling in and around the plant almost daily, and an exhausted and stressed team of Ukrainian engineers tasked with keeping the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant running safely, calls for international intervention grew louder.
“Nowhere in the history of this world has a nuclear power plant become part of a combat zone, so this really has to stop right now,” Bonnie Denise Jenkins, undersecretary for arms control and international security, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. Russia’s actions, she said, “have created a serious risk of a nuclear incident — a dangerous radiation release — that could not only threaten the people and environment of Ukraine, but could also affect neighboring countries and the international community at large.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine used his nightly address to underscore the risks, saying emergency systems worked on Thursday but that if they failed, the country and the world would face a nuclear accident.
And although the immediate threat appears to have been averted, the plant’s disconnection from the national grid caused widespread power outages across southern Ukraine and contributed to a war-induced humanitarian catastrophe. When in full operation, the plant supplies around 20 percent of the country with electricity, including around four million households.
As of 9 a.m. Friday, the two nuclear reactors that were operational at the time of the outage remained shut down, but work was underway to bring them back online, according to Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency Energoatom. It wasn’t immediately clear how long that would take or how many people were still without power.
The Zhaporizhzhia regional government said power supplies from other sources were “partially restored” as of Friday morning. Local residents across the region reported widespread power outages overnight and into the morning.
Ukrainians in the occupied territories are already living in difficult conditions. In eastern Ukraine, Russian bombing and bitter fighting have destroyed almost all of the infrastructure needed to provide heat, electricity and clean water, prompting the Ukrainian government to order mandatory evacuations of the fewer than 200,000 people still in the country east Ukrainian region live Donbass.
The situation in the occupied south is more complicated. Many of the cities there fell in the first days of the war and were spared the widespread destruction in the east. But if the nuclear power plant remained offline, power supplies to hundreds of thousands living in the occupied territories could be affected.
“The south of Ukraine – the occupied territories – is already in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Zelenskyy. “In addition to all the evil that the occupiers brought there, electricity, water and sewage have been shut off.”
Although the power plant’s disconnection from the national grid appeared to be related to nearby fighting, Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Moscow plans to divert power from the plant for its own needs by disconnecting and then reconnecting it to Ukraine’s grid the Russian network, a potentially complicated process in a war zone that leaves room for an accident.
Ms Jenkins, the State Department official, said the US was working through the United Nations Security Council to persuade Moscow not to attempt such a potentially risky move.
“We don’t want that to happen,” she said. “We continue to speak to Russia and through these discussions in the Security Council and we are pressuring Russia not to do so.”