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Ukrainian workers describe fleeing the Russian-occupied nuclear power plant

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For the last 15 months, a large nuclear power station in central Ukraine has been occupied by Russian forces. And this has sparked waves of international panic over the potential for a nuclear accident. NPR's Joanna Kakissis spoke to plant workers who explain why Ukraine's much anticipated counteroffensive might not work there.

ROMAN GERMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Roman German says he's spent his entire life around nuclear power plants. He grew up near one - Chernobyl. He was 11 years old when a reactor there blew up, causing the worst nuclear accident in history.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) My father was a security guard there. I remember he came home, immediately put his clothes in the trash and warned us not to approach it. The next day, the buses came to get us.

KAKISSIS: Their final stop was Enerhodar, the city known as the giver of energy. It's near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) Working there always seemed like the obvious choice to me. It was also considered so prestigious.

KAKISSIS: German got a job maintaining and repairing the plant's in-reactor control systems to make sure temperatures remained stable. He grew up obsessed with science and machines, so he loved his job. But then, in March 2022, Russian soldiers arrived. They occupied the plant after a four-hour firefight that burned down the plant's training building.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) For some reason, I thought we would be spared, that the Russians would never attack a nuclear power plant. I didn't believe it until the very end.

KAKISSIS: Russian forces kept German and other staff there to keep the plant running. He says he got used to seeing soldiers and armored personnel carriers everywhere. By summer, he noticed the Russian soldiers were already treating the grounds of the plant like a barracks.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) They sunbathed in their underwear. They barbecued. They slept on the grass. They smoked all the time and threw their cigarettes on the ground.

KAKISSIS: More concerning, he says, was their apparent obliviousness to hazards near the nuclear plant. He says Russian troops parked vehicles with ammunition near the plant's machine room, as well as tankers filled with flammable liquids.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) Also, they mined the territory around the plant. We were told to only walk around in daylight and strictly on concrete paths.

KAKISSIS: After work, German and other plant staff went home to the city of Enerhodar, which is also occupied by Russian forces. At night, he would hear explosions.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) And I saw evidence of shelling at work.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine has accused Russia of shelling nearby cities from the plant and also shelling the plant itself. Russia, however, says it's Ukrainian forces attacking the plant.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: NPR spoke to plant workers who said it felt so dangerous there that they had to escape. Engineer Oleksii Melnychuk, who fled last year, says it wasn't just the fear of an accident at the plant.

OLEKSII MELNYCHUK: (Through interpreter) It was also the stress of living in town. The Russian troops attacked people, kidnapped them, stole whatever they wanted. I got sick of going to work with a gun pointed in my face.

KAKISSIS: Russia moved to make Enerhodar and other occupied areas part of Russia. After a sham referendum last fall, they were formally annexed despite international condemnation. Russian authorities started demanding Ukrainian workers sign forms to be paid in rubles, the Russian currency. German says he told his colleagues not to sign.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) The Russian secret service said I was scaring people. They put a hood over my head and took me away.

KAKISSIS: He says Russian soldiers drove him to a windowless room where they beat him with a bat, broke his ribs, cut him with scissors and tortured him with forceps. He says he was detained and tortured twice.

GERMAN: (Through interpreter) I realized that if there would be a third time, it would be my last, that I would never get out of there alive. So I started looking for ways to escape.

KAKISSIS: In February, German and his wife left Enerhodar with their dogs Lana and Mila in the back seat. He says they drove through occupied parts of Ukraine, past heavy Russian fortifications along the front line and the ruins of the city of Mariupol. Then they drove north through Russia until they found a safe border crossing to northeastern Ukraine. Now they're in Kyiv.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Some other nuclear power plant workers who managed to flee now live in the central city of Zaporizhzhia...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS")

QUEEN: (Singing) And we'll keep on fighting til the end.

KAKISSIS: ...Where they often meet at a community center. On a recent morning, they listen to music and weave flowers into wreaths.

NATALIA NIKOLAEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Natalia Nikolaeva was a lab technician at the plant.

NIKOLAEVA: (Through interpreter) Being here makes us feel like home used to be, without the armed man next to you at work.

KAKISSIS: She says the Ukrainian company that operates the plant continues to pay staff who were forced to flee. But workers still at the plant say conditions there are only getting worse.

DMYTRO ORLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Dmytro Orlov, Enerhodar's exiled mayor, says he speaks to them and their families via text and encrypted lines. They tell him the plant is short staffed and that Russian troops continue to militarize it.

ORLOV: (Through interpreter) The plant is saturated with military equipment. It's a military base. They are using it to blackmail the international community with nuclear threats.

KAKISSIS: British intelligence reports that the Russians have gone so far as to build defensive positions on top of the reactor buildings themselves. Roman German, the plant worker, says it will be tough for Ukrainian forces to push out the Russians.

GERMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: The plant is like a human shield, he says, and they can hide behind it.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, reporting from Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.