VARASH, Ukraine — The director of the largest nuclear power plant still under Ukrainian control was exhausted, curt with his replies and fidgeting with his glasses, which he turned around and around in his hands.
“I always believed that after the Chernobyl disaster, Russians weren’t insane enough to risk another one,” he said. “But every day they are committing acts of terror, near or even inside each of our nuclear plants. The chance of another catastrophe is high.”
Chernobyl, while decommissioned, houses thousands of spent cooling rods that if not properly cared for could lead to an increase in radioactive leaking at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster 36 years ago.
Russian soldiers have occupied the site since the first day of the war and have stationed heavy weaponry on it, Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushchenko, said in an interview. On Thursday evening, he said some Russian troops were withdrawing from the “main part” of the site but others remained and that “no one can predict their next steps.”
Militarization wasn’t the only threat. Ukrainian staff at the plant haven’t had a day off since March 20 and are barely getting sleep. A power outage could disrupt the ventilation system and lead to overheating.
At Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, near Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine — which has been under Russian occupation since March 4 — Galushchenko said between 300 and 500 Russian soldiers and as many as 100 heavy vehicles including tanks were stationed within the plant’s perimeter. To take control of that plant, Russian forces fired artillery shells into one of the cooling units.
“They intentionally shelled it with tanks. That was craziness,” Galushchenko said. “We came very close to a disaster. The first unit of the plant was hit. It was on fire. It shows what they are willing to do.”
Besides the one in Varash, two other smaller Ukrainian plants are still under Ukrainian control. More than half of Ukraine’s electricity is provided by nuclear plants, and despite being under Russian control, the plant in Zaporizhzhia is still supplying the Ukrainian grid, though at a reduced capacity. Electricity consumption is also down across the country as more than a quarter of the population has been displaced; a sizable proportion of industries and businesses have either closed or been destroyed; and lights across the country go off at night to reduce the risk of buildings being a target of Russian shelling.
Varash, on the other hand, is carrying on much as usual. The town’s 8,000-plus plant workers are exempt from conscription into the military. Few have fled. Buses carrying workers to and from the plant, which looms over the whole city, bounce along wide boulevards while their families go about their daily lives.
The plant, which was built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is the entire reason for the city’s existence. About 30 miles south of the border with Belarus, Varash is otherwise relatively secluded and in one of the few areas of Ukraine that is still largely forested.
Here, residents worry about a reckless Russian attempt to take over the plant or even an errant shell causing a release of radiation.
City officials are already taking steps to prepare, including giving 50,000 residents potassium iodide tablets — which can help block the absorption of radioactive iodine in humans during prolonged exposure.
The mayor, Oleksandr Menzul, 49, worked for 25 years as a safety adviser at the plant, planning for various scenarios that could trigger a meltdown.
“We never estimated risk of Russian shelling,” he said. “Because it’s nonsense, right? Varash doesn’t even have bomb shelters, because who would bomb a city with a nuclear facility? But for Russia, an international disaster is just one mistake away. International law is a doormat that they clean their feet on.”
Menzul calms himself with the possibility that in the event of a disaster in Varash, prevailing winds might carry the worst of the radioactive steam from a blast into nearby Belarus or areas of Ukraine now occupied by Russia.
“If it blows in the enemy’s direction, at least there is some benefit to us,” he said, nervously chuckling.
This week, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Ukraine to offer technical assistance, meeting with Galushchenko and other top officials.
“There have already been several close calls. We can’t afford to lose any more time,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the agency’s head, said in a statement. “This conflict is already causing unimaginable human suffering and destruction. The IAEA’s expertise and capabilities are needed to prevent it from also leading to a nuclear accident.”
But Ukrainian officials have criticized the IAEA for not directly calling out Russia, which they say would bring more attention to the risks at nuclear facilities that, if shelled or otherwise damaged by Russia, could lead to a disaster with regional and potentially global implications.
“What I told them yesterday was we need political signals, political action from you,” Galushchenko said. “Technical assistance is fine, but what does it mean when our plants are occupied by Russian soldiers? When Russia is using our plants as shields from counteroffensives?”
The recent shooting down of two Russian drones over Varash — which was confirmed by Vitaly Koval, the regional military administrator — has raised questions about Russia’s possible surveillance of plants that are far from the front line.
The city is on edge. Despite being accompanied by a minder from the local government, visiting reporters were questioned by law enforcement. Citizens were apparently worried that the journalists could be Russian saboteurs.
It also is a city filled with memorials to past disasters. A monument to the Chernobyl victims stands prominently in the city center. Not far away is one to the victims of World War II. And a memorial to those killed in the ongoing war is already being planned.
“It should be a peaceful town, but it smells of fear,” the local minder said.