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Russia's seizure of nuclear power plant raises international concerns


We travel next to a Ukrainian nuclear power plant. The world watched last week as Russians took control of one such plant in Ukraine. Fire broke out on the site as combat raged nearby. Other plants remain in Ukrainian government control. And NPR's Tim Mak visited one.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The northern part of Rivne Oblast near the Belarussian border is a harsh place in winter. A light snow is falling as we enter the town of Varash, past concrete checkpoints and guards, some jumpier than others. Densely wooded areas crowd the road on both sides until, after a turn, these enormous structures appear on the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're approaching a nuclear plant (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are approaching a nuclear plant.

MAK: They're gargantuan cooling towers, billowing steam into the sky. A plant spokesman says we're the first reporters to visit the Rivne nuclear plant site since the invasion. It's one of just three and the largest currently under Ukrainian control after the Russians attacked and took over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site in southeastern Ukraine.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Just 700 meters down the road from the Rivne nuclear reactors, we spoke with Pavlo Pavlyshyn, the director general of the station. I asked him whether he could guarantee the security and safety of the site.

PAVLO PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) If more sophisticated weapons will be used against us, I think no one can assure the safety, but we are ready for it as well.

MAK: Though he did note that the Russians and Belarussians have made no moves towards the site and that his team was ready for any eventuality. He started the interview quietly, but the emotion, the toll of these last days of war appears to have been grinding on him as he talks about Russian nuclear scientists, people he considered his friends.

PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) They don't have to keep it silent. Why do they keep it silent? Why do they just keep watching us? The war is really happening. Innocent children are really dying.

MAK: He says that the Russian military, which has captured Zaporizhzhia and the now decommissioned Chernobyl site, is specifically trying to target nuclear power sites. A senior Ukrainian military official, Ihor Voronchenko, agrees with this assessment in an interview.

IHOR VORONCHENKO: (Through interpreter) This is a means for blackmailing and threatening us. Putin will threaten us with these nuclear plants, and they won't use the nuclear weapon, but they will threaten to turn Zaporizhzhia into the next Chernobyl.

MAK: We also spoke to Vitaliy Koval, the governor of this region. Nuclear safety is on his mind daily.

VITALIY KOVAL: (Through interpreter) We know how important it is to have nuclear safety and everything because we remember Chernobyl. We felt the consequences of the Chernobyl accident in our region. Four districts were contaminated by nuclear energy. That was a problem.

MAK: Pavlo Pavlyshyn, the director general, says that if the Russians do attempt to take the Rivne nuclear power plant, he fully expects the Ukrainian military will put up a fight. As we talk, the director general shares what he's telling his family, especially his 26-year-old son.

PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) To run somewhere or to hide is just meaningless. I don't want to go back to where I was. I want to live freely for my kids, for my grandkids. I want them to be able to travel to Europe, get education, speak freely.

MAK: As our conversation ends, he emphasizes to us that he's not a political person. He's a nuclear scientist. He's never been political. But right now, in the perilous situation he faces, that Ukrainians face, he says he cannot keep silent.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Rivne Oblast.

INSKEEP: We are following other news from the war, which is mostly news of things that have not happened. Negotiators are trying again for a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape combat zones in Ukraine. Past ceasefires have fallen apart amid barrages of Russian artillery. Russia's invading forces have made only limited progress in the past day. A giant convoy of vehicles near Kyiv has yet to move. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2022 at 7:00 PM HST
In a previous web introduction, we incorrectly said Russia was reportedly advancing on the third of Ukraine's four active nuclear power plants. Only one of the country's active nuclear power plants, the Zaporizhzhia facility, has been seized as of Tuesday. Russian forces have also seized the Chernobyl plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 disaster.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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