Russian soldiers who control a giant nuclear power plant in Ukraine are rounding up workers and subjecting them to brutal interrogations for possible saboteurs, driving many employees to leave and raising security concerns, Ukrainian officials say.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, is located in southern Ukraine, in the city of Enerhodar, on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, facing territory still occupied by Ukrainian forces. With 11,000 workers, the plant occupies a strategically important location, and security concerns at the plant make any Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake the area particularly difficult.
Russian forces have fortified the outside of the plant with trenches and heavy artillery, and inside they are stepping up measures to find anyone they think might pose a threat, according to company and local officials.
“People are being kidnapped en masse,” exiled Enerhodar mayor Dmytro Orlov said during a meeting Wednesday with officials from Energoatom, the state-owned company that oversees the complex. “The whereabouts of some of them are unknown. The rest are in very difficult conditions: they are being tortured and physically and morally mistreated.”
Orlov said in an interview with a local radio station this week that many plant employees and other residents were trying to escape into Ukrainian-controlled territory. “Even the young people are leaving the city,” he said. “It is not clear who will operate the nuclear power plant.”
Mr. Orlov’s statements could not be independently confirmed. But Energoatom officials have offered similar accounts based on interviews with plant workers, and witnesses in other occupied parts of Ukraine have relayed similar reports of mass arrests of civilians.
At the same meeting, Petro Kotin, interim president of Energoatom, said that the “seizure and gradual transformation of the plant into a military base with many weapons and explosives” amounted to an act of “nuclear terrorism”. He said that the company would continue to support its employees in the occupied territories in every way possible.
Last month, Kotin raised concerns about Russia’s militarization of the facility.
“The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is a well-fortified facility even in peacetime,” he said. “It is a perfect military base. In addition, the Russians understand that the amount of nuclear material that is there protects them. Ukraine will not attack such an object.”
Enerhodar, like other Russian-occupied areas in the south, has been the scene of attacks by a growing resistance movement in southern Ukraine, with civilians known as partisans engaged in violence against the occupying forces, civil disobedience and efforts to help the Ukrainian army. and retaliation by Russian forces.
Tensions in the city escalated on May 22, when Andrii Shevchyk, whom the Russians had appointed as mayor, was injured in a bomb attack outside his apartment. He was flown to Crimea for medical treatment. The next day, according to Energoatom, Russian forces shot a nuclear power plant employee multiple times at his home.
This week, Vladimir Rogov, the Russian representative on the top governing council for the Zaporizka region, which includes the nuclear plant, said in a television interview that it was time to institute the death penalty for “war criminals.”
Ivan Federov, the exiled mayor of Melitopol who has become something of an unofficial mouthpiece for the Ukrainian resistance in the region, estimated on Tuesday that Russian forces had rounded up some 500 locals in his hometown alone.
His claim could not be independently verified because Russia strictly controls access to the occupied territories. Russian forces regularly inspect the cell phones of people living there at checkpoints and during searches of their homes, according to witnesses, making communication with strangers extremely risky.
Federov himself was kidnapped by Russian forces before being released, part of a pattern that has played out in towns and villages, including Enerhodar. Ivan Samoidyuk, the first deputy mayor of Enerhodar, has been in Russian custody for more than three months, according to Ukrainian officials.
As Russia intensifies its crackdown, the Ukrainian government has promised a major counteroffensive and told anyone who can flee the occupied territories to leave before it begins.