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Video analysis reveals Russian attack on Ukrainian nuclear plant veered near disaster

Last week's assault by Russian forces on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was far more dangerous than initial assessments suggested, according to an analysis by NPR of video and photographs of the attack and its aftermath.

A thorough review of a four-hour, 21-minute security camera video of the attack reveals that Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant's massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel. Photos show that an administrative building directly in front of the reactor complex was shredded by Russian fire. And a video from inside the plant shows damage and a possible Russian shell that landed less than 250 feet from the Unit 2 reactor building.

The security camera footage also shows Russian troops haphazardly firing rocket-propelled grenades into the main administrative building at the plant and turning away Ukrainian firefighters even as a fire raged out of control in a nearby training building.

The evidence stands in stark contrast to early comments by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which while acknowledging the seriousness of the assault, emphasized that the action took place away from the reactors. In a news conference immediately after the attack, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi made reference to only a single projectile hitting a training building adjacent to the reactor complex.

"All the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all," Grossi told reporters at the March 4 briefing.

In fact, the training building took multiple strikes, and it was hardly the only part of the site to take fire from Russian forces. The security footage supports claims by Ukraine's nuclear regulator of damage at three other locations: the Unit 1 reactor building, the transformer at the Unit 6 reactor and the spent fuel pad, which is used to store nuclear waste. It also shows ordnance striking a high-voltage line outside the plant. The IAEA says two such lines were damaged in the attack.

"This video is very disturbing," says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. While the types of reactors used at the plant are far safer than the one that exploded in Chernobyl in 1986, the Russian attack could have triggered a meltdown similar to the kind that struck Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, he warns.

"It's completely insane to subject a nuclear plant to this kind of an assault," Lyman says.

In a news conference on Thursday, Grossi said that he had met with Ukrainian and Russian officials but failed to reach an agreement to avoid future attacks on Ukraine's other nuclear plants. "I'm aiming at having something relatively soon," he told reporters in Vienna.

The assault

On March 3, the nuclear plant was preparing for a fight. A news release posted to its website just hours before the assault described the facility as operating normally, with its assigned Ukrainian military unit ready for combat.

The Russian decision to move on the plant was clearly premeditated, according to Leone Hadavi, an open-source analyst with the Centre for Information Resilience, who helped NPR review the video.

"It was planned," Hadavi says, and it involved around 10 armored vehicles as well as two tanks. That is far more firepower than would have been carried by, say, a reconnaissance mission that might have stumbled across the plant by chance.

Just before 11:30 p.m. local time, someone began livestreaming the plant's security footage on its YouTube channel. The livestream rolled on as Russian forces began a slow and methodical advance on the plant. The column of armored vehicles, led by the tanks, used spotlights to cautiously approach the plant from the southeast along the main service road to the facility.

Around an hour and 20 minutes later, one of the two tanks that led the column was struck by a missile from Ukrainian forces and was disabled.

That marked the beginning of a fierce firefight that lasted for roughly two hours at the plant. Immediately after the tank was disabled, Russian forces returning fire appeared to hit a transmission line connected to the plant's main electrical substation. The IAEA says two of four high-voltage lines were damaged in the attack. Lyman says that these lines are essential to safe operations at the plant.

Russian forces then pushed their way into the parking area near the front gate and began shooting.

Much of the fire was directed toward the training center and the plant's main administrative building. But at various points in the battle, Russian forces lobbed rounds deep into the nuclear complex in the direction of the reactor buildings.

It's unclear whether the Russian troops were deliberately trying to strike more sensitive sections of the plant or whether they were returning fire from Ukrainian forces off camera. But what is clear is that the shooting was not accidental.

"We don't see random volleys of fire," Hadavi says. "The fire is very concentrated. They clearly want to hit Point A, Point B, Point C and Point D."

The afternoon after the battle, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine reported that the reactor compartment of Unit 1, which lay in the direction of some of the Russian fire, had sustained damage. It also reported that two shells had landed in an area used to hold old nuclear waste that lay to the north of the battle. Later statements by the regulator and the IAEA reported further damage to the power transformer for the Unit 6 reactor.

At one point, the video shows Russian forces directing their firepower northward toward Unit 6 and the spent fuel area, corroborating those reports.

Hadavi says the Russian troops remained disciplined through most of their attack. Toward the end of the fight, however, some Russian soldiers seemed to be discharging rocket-propelled grenades indiscriminately toward the main administrative building. One was seen stepping from behind an armored vehicle, raising the weapon and — without kneeling to take careful aim — firing it into the upper floors of the building. A total of five rocket-propelled grenades were lobbed into the facility.

Firefighters denied entry

By 2:25 a.m. on March 4, the fighting was largely over. Reinforcements arrived, including a Russian-built MRAP armored vehicle with a gray paint job resembling those used by the Russian National Guard.

Firefighting vehicles arrived at around 2:50 a.m., likely from the nearby town of Enerhodar. But even as the fire raged in the training building, Russian forces apparently forced the firefighters to turn around.

The damage

In the days after the assault, Energoatom, the Ukrainian state-owned utility that ran Zaporizhzhia, released several photos showing damage to the site on the social media platform Telegram. Most notably, a short video shows what might be a Russian artillery shell on an elevated walkway leading toward the Unit 2 reactor building.

The possible shell was heavily damaged and could not be identified with confidence, but Hadavi says it bears resemblance to some 100 mm and 125 mm munitions used by Russian armored vehicles and tanks. The video also shows two holes that were punched through the walkway's ceiling, presumably by Russian fire, and damage to the steel beams holding up the roof.

The location of the possible shell and the damage is within just a few hundred feet of the Unit 2 reactor building, says Tom Bielefeld, an independent nuclear security analyst based in Germany.

Bielefeld says that the walkway also runs alongside a building used to handle radioactive waste from the plant. That building is not as hardened, or reinforced against attacks and other catastrophic events, as the nuclear reactor buildings are. Had it been struck, there would have been the potential for a localized release of radioactive contamination.

"It was a near miss," Bielefeld says.

Energoatom also released several photos of battle damage to offices at the plant. NPR was able to verify the location as the main administrative building at the front of the facility.

Based on photos and damage assessments by Ukrainian officials and the IAEA, Lyman says that the damage appears to have been to some of the less hardened points within the nuclear plant. Unlike office buildings and elevated walkways, the reactors themselves and their spent fuel are sealed within a thick steel containment vessel that would withstand a great deal of damage.

But he also says that the host of systems required to keep the reactors safe are not hardened against attack. Cooling systems rely on exterior pipework; backup generators are kept in relatively ordinary buildings; vital electrical yards are out in the open; and the plant's control rooms are not designed to operate in a war zone.

Lyman says that the reactors at Zaporizhzhia have an inherently safer design than the ones at Chernobyl, which in 1986 was the site of the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.

Nevertheless, he said, if the firefight had damaged more of the plant's critical subsystems and the nuclear engineers on-site hadn't been able to reach emergency backups, the situation could have turned dire.

"In a couple of hours, you have core damage starting and a situation that is potentially irreversible," he says. "And then you have Fukushima."

In 2011, at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, a massive tsunami disabled electrical and cooling systems. Without cooling, the cores of the three operating reactors overheated and the nuclear fuel eventually melted. The ensuing meltdown breached the containment vessels, and radioactive material spilled into the environment. Over 100,000 people were forced to evacuate from their homes for a prolonged period, and thousands have yet to return.

"Dangerous idiocy"

That did not happen at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is now firmly under Russian control. Russian state media showed off the capture of the plant on Wednesday while carefully framing out some of the damage Russian troops had caused. Meanwhile, Ukraine's nuclear inspectorate says that reactors 1 and 6 at the site have been effectively disabled by the fighting. A lack of personnel and parts is hindering scheduled maintenance at Unit 1 and repairs to the damaged Unit 6 transformer, respectively.

"We emphasize that incomplete and/or untimely implementation of maintenance measures for equipment important to safety can decrease its reliability and in turn lead to its failure and emergencies and accidents," the regulator said in a statement.

Bielefeld says he is deeply worried about the prospects of firefights at Ukraine's three remaining nuclear power stations. At Rivne Nuclear Power Plant in the country's north, the plant's director, Pavlo Pavlyshyn, told NPR that Ukrainian forces were prepared to mount a defense should Russian troops try to take the plant. And Russian forces are now advancing toward a second plant, the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Station.

"I hope this will be the last time we have to talk about these things," Bielefeld says. "But this war is not over yet."

Without some sort of rules of engagement regarding nuclear facilities, he worries that a more serious accident could be just a matter of time.

"Everybody knows that nuclear reactors are not designed to withstand all-out military assaults," he says. "It is dangerous idiocy." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency flew to Turkey yesterday to meet with Russian and Ukrainian officials. His goal was to forge an agreement that would stop attacks on nuclear facilities in Ukraine. He came back empty-handed but vowed to keep trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL MARIANO GROSSI: I'm aiming at having something relatively soon, relatively soon.

FADEL: The meetings came a week after Russian forces stormed Europe's largest nuclear power plant. And a new analysis from NPR shows that the battle was far more dangerous than previously reported. Joining me to discuss is NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about this analysis. What did you find?

BRUMFIEL: Right. So the plant is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. And remarkably, the entire attack by Russian forces, pretty much, was livestreamed on its YouTube channel.

FADEL: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: Someone put up over four hours of grainy security footage. So together with NPR's Meredith Rizzo, Alison Hurt and Tien Le and a researcher at the Centre for Information Resilience, a guy named Leone Hadavi, we pulled it apart to really try and find out the story of what happened that night. And what we discovered was not good. This firefight caused damage throughout the plant and put critical systems at risk. Basically, it was a lot worse than we thought.

FADEL: OK, explain that because I have to say when I heard attack on a nuclear power plant, that already sounded really bad, incredibly dangerous.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, good point. You know, and the thing was that immediately after the attack, a lot of the focus was on this building next to the nuclear plant. It was a training center. And I think that kind of gave people the impression that the plant itself didn't take fire or didn't take much fire. But we identified at least six other locations that appeared to take damage. And these were all across the site, including near the reactors and other sensitive equipment. Some of the stuff - if it had been hit harder, it could have triggered a nuclear emergency or maybe even a meltdown.

FADEL: OK, that sounds terrifying. Give me an example of what other equipment you're referring to there.

BRUMFIEL: Sure. So a short video from the plant turned up on the social media platform Telegram the day after the attack. And it shows what could be a Russian shell on the ground in sort of this enclosed walkway site. Now, this walkway was about 250 feet, maybe a little less from the Unit 2 reactor. And on the other side is the facility that handles radioactive waste for the plant. Tom Bielefeld is a nuclear security expert. He told me that if that building had been struck, it could have potentially contaminated the entire facility.

TOM BIELEFED: The situation that we saw here could have gone wrong, much more wrong than it did.

BRUMFIEL: And these parts of the plant are the real problem. The reactors themselves are sealed away in these big, heavy metal containers that take a lot to damage them. But there are power lines, transformers, cooling systems, backup generators. I mean, the list goes on and on. They're critical to safety. They're vulnerable. Some of them did get hit that night. Fortunately, there was enough redundancy that it didn't matter. There was no meltdown, at least not this time.

FADEL: Not this time. So, Geoff, where does this go from here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I think the point of doing this was to show this is a really dangerous situation, still. I mean, as you mentioned up there at the top, neither side is willing to back down. Ukraine relies on nuclear for half of its electricity, and it's planning to defend its remaining plants. And Russia, meanwhile, is continuing its advance. Its forces are now quite near another nuclear plant, the South Ukraine Nuclear Plant. And so unless these two sides can reach some sort of agreement, we may have a repeat of what happened at Zaporizhzhia. And this time, we might not be so lucky.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thank you so much for your reporting.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

FADEL: And you can see the footage for yourself on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.