Satellite images show war dangerously close to key parts of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant: NPR

A Russian soldier patrols the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on May 1. A series of exchanges over the past few weeks have made conditions at the plant more dangerous.

Andrei Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

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Andrei Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

A Russian soldier patrols the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on May 1. A series of exchanges over the past few weeks have made conditions at the plant more dangerous.

Andrei Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest such plant in Europe – came under fire. Who was behind it remains unclear: Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the attacks. What is clear is that the strikes are closing in and have already damaged some critical parts of the sprawling nuclear complex.

An NPR analysis of satellite imagery and posts to Twitter, Telegram and YouTube over the past month shows how escalating conflict at the plant is creeping ever closer to critical security systems and radioactive materials, increasing the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

Planet company satellite images taken in early July and over the weekend show Russian troops positioned inside the perimeter of the plant, as well as some of the damage from military strikes around the nuclear facility. The fighting comes at a time when Russia is trying to formally annex the Zaporizhzhia region, where the plant is located. Institute for the Study of War Analysis suggests that the resurgence of nuclear tensions coincide with the delivery by the United States of heavy weapons to Ukraine, which has used them to retake significant portions of southern Ukraine all summer.

Over the weekend, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned that the situation at the power plant could spin out of control.

“Military action jeopardizing the safety and security of the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs,” he said. in a report. “I make a strong and urgent appeal to all parties to exercise the utmost restraint near this important nuclear facility, with its six reactors.”

Early July: Satellite image shows Russian forces camped within factory perimeter

Russian troops took the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in early March in what experts described as a risky and reckless assault. Since then, the Russian military has firmly controlled the facility’s six reactors, which continue to be operated by Ukrainian personnel.

A satellite image taken July 3 by Planet shows a dozen military vehicles parked near some administrative buildings. The Russians also erected several large tents in nearby land, presumably to house the troops tasked with protecting the factory.

Physically stationing Russian troops inside the plant will undoubtedly affect operations, according to Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy security at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group. “It puts pressure on the Ukrainian staff at the factory,” he says.

Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the power station is located, said on Ukrainian television that worker morale is at rock bottom, especially after Russian soldiers allegedly beat up an employee to death in July.

Late July: This Russian camp became a target for Ukrainian forces

On July 22, the intelligence wing of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted a video of an apparent drone strike on the camp. The video showed an explosion near the tents, which caused dozens of Russian soldiers to flee. The video then shows the tents on fire. The Ukrainian ministry claimed that the suicide drone injured 12 soldiers and killed three others.

Satellite images corroborate this video. Low-resolution images from Planet show the strike may have taken place between July 19 and July 21. A higher resolution image from August 7 shows burn scars and damaged tents where the Russian encampment once stood.

“It showed that the Ukrainians would not hesitate to attack the Russian army inside the installation itself,” he said. Wim Zwijnenburga researcher who studies the environmental impacts of war for the Dutch nonprofit pax.

Lyman says the Ukrainians may have been confident in the accuracy of their strike, but it was still a huge risk to strike inside the perimeter of the facility.

“It’s definitely starting to play with fire,” he says.

Early August: Russians may have repositioned troops and equipment next to nuclear reactors in response to strike

Planet’s August 7 image also shows that the military trucks first seen at the site in July appear to have disappeared.

A separate video released by the Latvia-based Russian investigative journalism organization known as The insider shows what appears to be drone footage of Russian vehicles being moved through buildings near the plant’s massive nuclear reactors.

This short video appears to show vehicles approaching the main reactor buildings of the plant

The insider

The drone video is dated August 2. Although NPR could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage, Zwijnenburg showed that the video was shot at various locations around the nuclear power plant.

Some of the military trucks in the images also match those seen parked at the site in Planet satellite images.

According to Zwijnenburg, Russia has already stored vehicles near the reactors, but it seems credible after the drone attack that it would move additional equipment closer. “They probably stockpiled [the vehicles] there to prevent any indirect strike,” he said.

Bringing vehicles closer to critical factory buildings would significantly increase the danger factor, according to Lyman. In addition to making critical buildings a potential target, the trucks and armored vehicles themselves could contain munitions or explosives that would be dangerous next to a nuclear reactor. “It depends on what’s in those vehicles,” he says.

The latest strikes have hit closer to critical parts of the plant

Images from the Russian state media channel Zvezda over the weekend shows a fire burning near the plant’s 750kV substation, which supplies electricity both inside and outside the facility. Areas scorched by the fire are also clearly visible in Planet’s August 7 satellite images. The The IAEA says that the factory’s power supply system was damaged during the strike.

Lyman says the substation is absolutely critical to the safe operation of the plant. Nuclear reactors require the constant circulation of water through their cores in order to stay cool, which, in turn, requires pumps powered by electricity.

“You don’t want to compromise anything electrical equipment and power lines,” he says. If a factory loses power, backup diesel generators can provide water for a while, but only if they have been well maintained. Lyman says American factories sometimes struggle to keep their generators in a continuous state of readiness.

“I don’t know what the status of equipment monitoring and maintenance is at this point in Zaporizhzhia,” Lyman said.

A second Video Zvezda appears to show what may be parts of a rocket that exploded near the plant’s nuclear waste storage facility. The video shows the rocket body near the site, as well as damage to a small support building near the landfill.

Zwijnenburg says the debris resembles a BM-27 Uragan short-range artillery rocket. Ukraine and Russia use the rockets, but they are usually fired in groups, or in bursts, he said. The appearance of a single weapon is “very strange”.

“It is difficult to establish the trajectory of the missile that hit the facility,” he said. It may have been deliberate or a misfire on either side.

Finding a Solution

Either way, Russia could add more firepower to the site in response to the latest strikes. On August 9, the Russian administrator of the Zaporizhzhia region said on Russian television that the Russian military was adding more rocket systems around the plant, apparently to protect against Ukrainian attacks.

Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the situation looks increasingly dangerous. “There’s kind of a slow deterioration in the security posture at the plant,” he says. “If there’s a sustained active fight, chances are you’ll get into a situation you can’t control.”

IAEA Director General Grossi said he wanted to send nuclear inspectors to the site, with the aim of stabilizing safety and security there.

Evgeny Balitsky, the appointed Russian administrator for the region, said Russian engineers maintain the plant and he invited IAEA officials to inspect the plant. But Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a nuclear think tank, believes that put a dangerous previous.

“You should access the plant by traveling with a Russian passport, crossing Russian territory. You cannot cross Ukrainian territory, you cannot use Ukrainian passports, and you cannot access it by crossing the river , ” he says.

It also risks classifying the Ukrainian plant as belonging to Russia, which has different inspection protocols stemming from its nuclear weapons program.

“The IAEA is at an impasse,” says Sokolski.

Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s top aides, has advocated for a demilitarized zone around the plant.

He cited a United Nations-brokered grain export deal with Turkey as a potential model. The head of the Ukrainian electricity company recommended UN peacekeeping monitor the situation.

Others call for sustained international pressure to find a solution.

“The only sure way to end this crisis is to create a coalition of nuclear states – Japan, South Korea, the United States, etc. – to pressure Russia to withdraw completely from the power plant. electricity,” said Hryhoriy Plachkov, the former head of Ukraine’s nuclear regulator. “I don’t think we can send them off with missiles.”

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