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Ukraine struggles to operate a nuclear power industry in the middle of a war

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukraine's government is trying to do something no nation has ever even tried - operating a nuclear power industry in the middle of a war. One nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia has already been caught up in the fighting. And experts say as Russia continues to launch missile and drone attacks, other reactors could be vulnerable. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

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BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In a room deep inside the Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plant, five men sit at control panels surrounded by flashing red and green lights. They're going through the step-by-step checklist for firing up a nuclear reactor. This is a demonstration for journalists. Keeping these facilities operating is a point of pride for Ukrainians. Officials here say the actual restart of one of the Soviet-era reactors is happening in another part of the plant after routine maintenance and refueling. Watching from a corner is a burly, balding man named Petro Kotin. He's head of Ukraine's national atomic energy company, Energoatom. He says running facilities like this in the middle of a war...

PETRO KOTIN: Never such cases happen before, actually.

MANN: Most of the attention since Russias full-scale invasion has focused on Zaporizhzhia, a reactor complex in eastern Ukraine that's been occupied by Russian troops for more than a year. Kotin says the situation there is dire, with safety systems forced at times to operate on backup diesel generators.

KOTIN: It was full blackout at the plant, and it is like the first stage of Fukushima scenario. When you do not have external power, it is awful situation.

MANN: In a country still haunted by the disaster at Chernobyl, the threat of an event like Fukushima is galling. Kotin says what the Russians are doing is crazy.

KOTIN: This is the first time when actually the country who actually possessed nuclear power came to another country with such developed nuclear industry and just captured the plant, the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. So this just might almost destroy everything.

MANN: Officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency have inspectors at Zaporizhzhia. On Friday, the IAEA issued a statement warning that Russian troops have refused to let their team inspect key parts of the complex to determine whether mines or other explosives have been placed in sensitive areas. Edwin Lyman is a physicist and director of the Nuclear Power Safety Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

EDWIN LYMAN: Unfortunately, the Zaporizhzhia situation has shown how vulnerable nuclear power plants can be in a country at war and under attack.

MANN: Lyman says by operating its other nuclear reactors around the country, even those far from the frontlines, Ukraine is taking a serious risk.

LYMAN: These plants were not designed to be hardened against military attack. And even though there is some capability to protect their airspace from missiles and drones, it's not perfect.

MANN: Ukrainian officials say they have no choice but to keep these plants operating. They provide roughly half the country's electricity. Even with the reactors running, the country saw widespread power outages last winter. Back at the Khmelnytskyi plant, Petro Kotin says the country is doing everything it can to minimize risks by improving its air defenses.

KOTIN: We constantly increase the protection of nuclear power plant. This is a task for our militaries and for special anti-drone equipment.

MANN: It's a job for the military's anti-drone equipment, he says. But Kotin acknowledged as long as Russian missile and drone strikes continue, his country's reactors will face unprecedented and unpredictable peril. Brian Mann, NPR News, Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENT FAIYAZ SONG, "WASTING TIME (FEAT. DRAKE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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