May 27, 2023 - 8:00am


“The intensity of our services has increased since the start of the war,” says Sergii Tkachenko, a colonel in Ukraine’s State Emergency Service who oversees technical measures and civilian information services. “Since the invasion, we’ve had to launch additional evacuation training for those who live in the zones around the power plant.”

There is a noticeably solemn look on his face as he explains the contingencies. “Potassium iodide pills and cartridge masks are being distributed throughout the local municipalities,” Tkachenko tells me, holding up one of the pills alongside a collection of glossy pamphlets that outline civilian emergency procedures. One pamphlet contains a list of foods that help to reduce the consequences of radiation exposure. Another contains a tear-out identification card for children to list their parents and home address, a last resort in the event of separation.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest in Europe. Located in Enerhodar, the facility sits just 50 kilometres southwest of the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is normally home to over 700,000 Ukrainians. Since Russia’s violent seizure of the plant last March, though, local residents and government agencies alike have been forced to contend with the looming spectre of nuclear catastrophe.

While the plant’s reactors have been shut down in the intervening months, a continued supply of power is required to maintain basic cooling functions. This baseline power supply normally comes from external lines, but damage to those lines from artillery fire has necessitated the use of diesel generators — which are also susceptible to artillery fire and other tactical strikes.

According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, on 19th November last year shelling caused damage to several structures, including a radioactive waste building, a cooling pond sprinkler system, an electrical cable to one of the diesel generators, condensate storage tanks, as well as a bridge between a reactor and its auxiliary buildings. Troublingly, the NEA has also noted reports of landmine explosions near the site’s perimeter.

“We left because we were afraid of the Russians shelling so close to the plant,” said one man from Enerhodar who is currently staying at a shelter in Zaporizhzhia for displaced civilians. “The fear is not just that the artillery may hit the reactor; there are also cooling ponds and power supplies that could be destroyed,” he added, noting that his relatives continue to work at the plant under the Russian occupation.

While officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been allowed by the Russian military to visit the site, the body’s repeated calls for the formal establishment of a demilitarised zone have not come to fruition. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s Director General, has spoken plainly about the perilous nature of the ongoing hostilities: “This cannot go on. Each time we are rolling a dice. And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out.”

Similarly, in a recent interview with Deutsche Welle, physicist Edwin Lyman suggested that an accident at Zaporizhzhia could be one of the most destructive nuclear events in history, noting that “the severity of any consequences would probably fall somewhere in between what happened at Chernobyl and what happened at Fukushima.” Lyman, who is the Director of Nuclear Power Safety with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, also suggested that the radioactive fallout would be more intense if the accident were combat-related rather than the result of technical failure.

As the summer months approach, the expectations for a decisive Ukrainian counteroffensive mount. Largely, these expectations consist of recapturing cities along the south shore of the Dnipro — cities like Enerhodar. Barring any sort of spontaneous Russian retreat, taking these key locations will likely involve a significant exchange of artillery fire. And insofar as such a counteroffensive unravels without the provision of a strict demilitarised zone surrounding the Zaporizhzhia plant, millions of Ukrainians and other Europeans will face the grave and growing threat of a generational nuclear catastrophe.

Sam Forster is a freelance journalist who has lived in Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Dallas, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires, where he worked as a reporter for the Buenos Aires Times.