NIKOPOL, Ukraine—It’s just after 10 in the morning in Nikopol and the local pub is packed, while sounds of Russian artillery fired from a nuclear power plant on the brink of meltdown boom in the distance. Across the road is the charred ash and metal wreckage of a local market, destroyed a few days ago by a Russian GRAD rocket barrage.
The bartender is serving mainly vodka and orange juice, while the mainly middle-aged male patrons stumble in and out accosting passersby with half-formed sentences. The scenes of destruction and deprivation are punctured only by the sight of a spotless, brand-spanking new Tesla Model 3 parked outside. It’s one of the strangest scenes I’ve seen in six months of a war full of them.
“I’ll fight the Russians to the death,” mumbled a man named Denis, who claims to be a local soldier. He was in barely any state to stand, let alone fight. “People cope with this any way they can,” said a Ukrainian journalist next to me as she shrugged with a look of pity on her face. When we asked a local for a local café, she told us there had been a lovely one, but it had been bombed just a few days back. Yet if worst-case scenarios come to pass, this city could be the center of the worst nuclear disaster the world has seen since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
Stories of endless shelling of cities are a dime a dozen in Ukraine, but what is happening to Nikopol is unique. The rockets and bombs are coming from Russian positions in and around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is just a few kilometers across the Dnieper River that bisects Ukraine. Disregarding all laws of war and sanity, the Russian Armed Forces have turned the plant into a front line of war. From the riverbank of Nikopol, you can see the towers and plumes of the smoke of the reactors in the background. It was covered in what we first thought was fog, but was in fact smog from fires set off by intense fighting nearby.
This week, a delegation of experts sent by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia on a dangerous mission to inspect the plant and report on its safety. They will have to cross the front lines of an extremely active conflict, which has been pushed into a higher gear by a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the southern Kherson region. Their goal is to negotiate a demilitarized zone around the plant to reduce the danger of nuclear disaster.
Life in the city has been terrifying for civilians. On the night of Aug. 10, local authorities said that 13 were killed in Nikopol and the neighboring town of Marhanets. “We sleep in the woods every night,” one resident told The Daily Beast. “People just sleep in their cars, they’ve got mattresses and pillows in them. When you drive from Nikopol to Zaporizhzhia, you look into the woods and there are cars everywhere!”
Pointing to a burned-out wooden structure that used to be a civilian house, 32-year-old IT worker Viacheslav Sobolev told The Daily Beast that “the Russians have all their artillery inside the [nuclear power plant] base. When they want to fire, they take it to positions just outside the plant, fire, then quickly pack it up and move it back inside the plant. They know we can’t dare fire back.”
Local Ukrainian partisans in the area provide details to authorities in Nikopol whenever they see Russian guns being rolled out so that they can warn the populace to take cover. U.S. and British intelligence reports have corroborated this information, providing satellite imagery that shows Russian military vehicles inside the radius of the power plant. Meanwhile, a brave skeleton crew of workers continues to man the plant at the point of Russian rifles.
Russian troops have previously shown a blatant disregard for nuclear safety protocols in this conflict. After they occupied the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl plant on the first day of the invasion, troops looted thousands of computers and dug trenches in the middle of radioactive soil. The mass movement of troops and vehicles covered them in radioactive dust.
While around 80 percent of the oblast of Zaporizhzhia was occupied by the Russians in the early days of the war, the regional capital remains in Ukrainian hands. It has become the epicenter for refugees fleeing the worst of the violence.
Tanya had just arrived on the day The Daily Beast visited the Zaporizhzhia refugee shelter. She was from a small town just outside Enerhodar, the city that houses the power plant and its employees. She had taken her two children, but her husband had chosen to remain behind.
“The Russians tell us that if we leave, they will put their soldiers in our house. We didn’t want to lose all we had,” she said. While they had stayed for six months of the war, the danger of a nuclear disaster was the final straw for her. She said she could not risk her children’s safety anymore and reluctantly decided to leave.
A direct artillery hit would not be strong enough to penetrate the reactor's shielding. The most dangerous thing that could happen right now is an uncontrolled fire. If the munitions stored by the Russians explode, they could destroy the backup systems of the generators. The worst-case scenario is the fire damages the safety systems and leaves the nuclear core exposed, causing a breach of the plant’s containment measures. That could cause an explosion of radioactive steam like what happened at Fukushima, spreading radioactive material over thousands of miles. In response, local authorities have been handing out iodine tablets and doing radiation emergency drills. But these are unlikely to be enough in the event of a real disaster.
Meanwhile, Tanya is due to move to Ireland with her daughters, though she longs to return to her home once it is liberated. “But home under Russia is no longer free. We cannot speak our minds, we are under constant suspicion,” she told The Daily Beast. “They are trying to make us part of their country. But we don’t want their passports, we don’t want to use their rubles. We just want our Ukraine back.”