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Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of planning to attack Zaporizhzhia power plant

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We begin today abroad. Ukraine and Russia both say the other is planning to attack or sabotage the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. They've been trading accusations over the past year, but now both sides say an attack is imminent. To better understand this tense moment in the war, we are joined by three NPR correspondents - Greg Myre in Kyiv, Charles Maynes in Moscow and Greg (ph) Brumfiel - Geoff Brumfiel in Washington. There's so many of you, I'm mixing up your names, so I'm not going to say hello to all of you at once. I'll start with you, Greg. What are the Ukrainians claiming?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Ukrainian intelligence believes Russian forces have placed devices that appear to be explosives on the rooftops of at least two of the six nuclear reactors. Now, the Ukrainians believe the intent could be to detonate a small explosive on top of the reactors, making it look like it's a Ukrainian shelling attack. Presumably, it wouldn't cause too much damage or leak radiation from the reactors. Now, Zelenskyy says he announced this publicly because he says the world needs to know, quote, "that the only source of the danger to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is Russia and no one else." And Ukrainians say they have no motive to attack their own nuclear power plant. They want the facility back in one piece, and they just need the electricity that it generates.

DETROW: Charles, you're in Moscow. What does Russia allege here?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, you know, throughout the war, we've seen Kyiv and Moscow repeatedly trade accusations of false-flag operations - you know, each blaming the other for carrying out violence or planning to. And that's the case here. Russia says it is Ukraine planning to attack the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. An official from Russia's nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, was very specific. He said Ukraine plans to bomb the facility tonight, although he's provided no evidence. Yet, speaking to journalists in Moscow today, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, built on that claim. He called the threat of sabotage at the plant high and warned of possible catastrophic consequences. Peskov said Moscow was taking steps to neutralize that threat. But somewhat ominously, he also drew comparisons to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam last month, saying it showed Ukraine was capable of anything. And, of course, the destruction of that dam is yet another example where Moscow and Kyiv have dueling narratives over who was responsible for the mass destruction that followed.

DETROW: Right. Now, Geoff, you have spent a lot of time reporting on this nuclear complex. As you understand it, how vulnerable is the plant to attack?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, fundamentally, this is a civilian facility. I mean, it's just not designed to withstand a direct military attack. That said, the reactors themselves are encased in these very heavy containment vessels. They would probably be difficult to damage or destroy, even with really big munitions, like missiles or tank rounds. But there are a lot of support systems - generators, water pumps, stuff like that - that are quite vulnerable. The plant has endured quite a bit already. You know, its power lines keep getting cut. It's lost its primary supply of cooling water thanks to the destruction of that dam that...

DETROW: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...Charles just mentioned. And the number of Ukrainian workers reportedly is dwindling. They're just not showing up. That said, you know, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog, are at the plant. They say they've seen no evidence so far of mines or demolition charges, at least not in the areas they've had access to. So at the moment, things seem stable.

DETROW: OK. Now back to Greg in Kyiv. Ukraine says there's no motive for - to attack its own plant, but it's waging this offensive in the southeast of the country, where the dam is located. How is that offensive linked to these developments at the nuclear plant?

MYRE: Yeah, Scott, there is a relationship here. Ukraine is pressing this major offensive in the east and the south. And one line of attack is less than 50 miles east of the nuclear plant. Now, Ukraine hasn't made much progress on this front over the past month. But if it does, and if they push the Russians back or break through their lines, the Russian troops now holding the Zaporizhzhia plant would be at great risk of getting trapped there. The Russians are already hemmed in to the north and the west of the plant by the Dnieper River, and Ukrainian forces are on the opposite side of the river. So the Ukrainians would very much want to retake this. And if they did, it would represent a major military and symbolic victory.

DETROW: So Charles, from Russia's perspective, though, what's the value of holding and defending a nuclear plant when it's no longer producing electricity?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, the evidence seems quite clear, despite Kremlin denials, that Russia had at least been using the nuclear facility to store military equipment with the idea that the other side, Ukraine, might be too scared to fire back at a nuclear facility. That hasn't entirely happened. There's clearly been fighting near the plant for months and making many people very nervous in the process. But whether or not the plant is generating electricity or not at this moment, the nuclear facility is clearly important to Ukraine's economy and, it follows, could be important to Russia's as well. You know, this is not just about Russia keeping Ukraine from generating electricity that, you know, as Greg noted earlier, its economy desperately needs, but also about possibly rechanneling that energy towards Russian needs, particularly in places like annexed Crimea - that peninsula that was seized by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.

You know, also, let's not forget that the plant itself is on territory that Russia, at least on paper, claims to have annexed on its own - as its own following these very controversial referendums for joining the Russian Federation. Despite international condemnation, Russia insists this land was historically Russian and is now theirs once again. (Inaudible) follows the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility is theirs too, if they can hold it.

DETROW: So Geoff, if something happens here, I think this this conversation has made it clear there will be dueling claims. There will be a lot of confusing information, possibly misinformation. What will you be watching for to determine if something has happened and how serious it might be?

BRUMFIEL: So those inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are on-site, and they can give the first indication of any sort of emergency. They have a connection to the outside world. Now, you know, the good news here is that this reactor is very, very different from the other major nuclear accident that happened in Ukraine. That was Chernobyl in 1986. That reactor was a terrible accident. These are a more modern design. They're safer, and the reactors have been shut down for a long time. So I don't think were likely to see a sort of huge nuclear accident. But that being said, if something goes wrong, you know, people from the outside will have a really hard time trying to get in to sort of contain any sort of accident, so it's a potentially serious situation for sure.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel in Washington, Charles Maynes in Moscow and Greg Myre in Kyiv. Thanks to everybody.

MYRE: Sure thing, Scott.

MAYNES: Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. 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.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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