Zaporizhia, Ukraine
CNN

When Russian forces began shelling nearby towns from the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant they operated in southeastern Ukraine, Elena decided it was time to flee.

She continued to work at the Zaporizhia complex for months after the Russians attacked it in March, effectively holding hundreds of Ukrainian workers hostage – to enable Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – to continue operating.

But eventually, the constant explosions and fear for her young son’s life forced her to risk her escape.

“It’s scary,” Elena told CNN. “Everything explodes there.”

CNN agreed to use only Elena’s name out of concern for her safety

The Ukrainians have accused the Russian military of using the plant as a shield and risking serious damage or potential disaster to the plant. In response, the Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian forces fired on the plant.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the UN Security Council on Wednesday, saying Russia had “brought the world to the brink of a radiation disaster” by turning the plant into a “war zone” and called for the plant to be militarized.

“At night (the Russians) are firing somewhere behind the reservoir,” Elena said. “Several explosions going off at the same time, like big car fires.”

The exodus of workers has been hastened by fears about the consequences of Russian military actions around the plant.

“For the past two weeks, there has been an extraordinary flow of personnel,” said Daria, who is still working at the nuclear plant. CNN agreed not to use her real name for security reasons. “We have people leaving together, in dozens, in packs.”

Elena said that the workers at the plant are afraid of the Russian troops stationed there, because they walk around with machine guns and often “get drunk and shoot in the air” at night.

“A man was killed there before I left. That’s why we left,” said Elena.

Three Ukrainian plant workers have been beaten or shot dead by Russian forces since March, and at least 26 others have been detained on charges of leaking information, Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said on Wednesday.

For those living in the plant, conditions are “getting worse every day,” Petro Kotin, president of Ukrainian state-run nuclear power operator Energoatom, told CNN.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” Kotin said. “They are actually heroes, working in these conditions in the plant.”

Kotin said the Russian military had placed 20 trucks in two turbine halls, as revealed in a recently leaked video verified by CNN.

“We believe there are explosives in this truck,” Kotin said. “And that’s very dangerous.”

Petro Kotin is the chairman of Energoatom, the Ukrainian state-owned nuclear power operator.

A possible fire could spread to a nearby reactor, as the entrance to the fire brigade is closed, he said.

They believe the Russians will try to switch the Zaporizhia plant’s output from the Ukrainian power grid to the Russian network, a process that would involve a “complete shutdown” of the plant using diesel generators to cool the reactors. Such an operation would be extremely dangerous, he said.

On Thursday, the plant was completely disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid for the first time in its history, according to the country’s nuclear operator Energoatom. It said the last power line connecting to Ukraine’s power grid had broken twice after fires broke out in nearby ash pits, and that “actions by aggressors” were responsible.

The Russian-installed regional governor later said work was underway to restore power to the region. He in turn blamed Ukraine’s military operation for the outage.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said late Thursday that all six reactors had been disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid.

The increasing dangers of working at the plant have increased the psychological pressure on the skeleton staffing left behind. Daria, a plant employee, said that now only 10-15% of employees remain in her department, who live day by day in a “state of powerless anger”.

“Mentally it’s already very difficult,” Daria said. “But I don’t know when or how we will leave.”

Daria said technical staff at the plant were doing “impossible” to keep it running without incident, but added that “the world has no idea how serious everything is, how everything is hanging on a thin thread.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday that Russia

“The human state of mind can cause accidents,” Daria said. “In plants like ours, it’s not really the equipment that’s at fault. What matters here are the people, their decisions, their reaction to the signal, to any breach, to any loss.”

The IAEA is currently negotiating with Russia for an urgent inspection of the nuclear plant to assess the safety of the operation. But Daria said she thinks “nothing will change” even if that happens.

“My only hope is the Ukrainian army,” said Daria, but she fears what the Russians will do if they come. “They love to say ‘we will destroy you’ and they already have orders for that. That’s why people leave.”

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