She continued to work at the Zaporozhye complex for months after the Russians stormed it in March, among hundreds of Ukrainian workers who were effectively taken hostage to keep the power plant — the largest nuclear power plant in Europe — running.
But in the end, constant explosions and fears for the life of her little son forced her to take the risk of leaving.
“It’s scary,” Elena told CNN. “Everything explodes there.”
CNN agreed to use only Elena’s first name for her safety.
The Ukrainians have accused Russian troops of using the plant as a shield and risking serious damage or potential disaster at the plant. In response, the Kremlin repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian forces were shelling the plant.
“At night, the (Russians) shoot somewhere behind the reservoir,” Elena said. “There are many, many explosions at the same time, like big machines are firing.”
Concerns about the consequences of the actions of Russian troops around the plant hastened the exodus of workers.
“The last two weeks have seen a crazy outflow of personnel,” says Daria, an employee who still works at the nuclear power plant. CNN agreed not to use her real name for security reasons. “We have people leaving en masse, in dozens, in flocks.”
Yelena said the plant’s employees are afraid of the Russian troops based there, who walk around with machine guns and often “get drunk and shoot in the air” at night.
“A man was killed there just before I left. That’s why we left,” Elena said.
Three Ukrainian factory workers have been killed by the Russian military since March as a result of beatings or shelling, and at least 26 others have been detained on charges of leaking information, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets said on Wednesday.
“Very dangerous” conditions
For those who remain at the plant, the situation is “deteriorating every day,” Petr Kotin, president of Ukraine’s state nuclear energy operator Energoatom, told CNN.
“This is a very difficult situation,” Kotin said. “They are truly heroes who continue to work in such conditions at the plant.”
Kotin said Russian troops have placed 20 trucks in two engine rooms, as evidenced by a recent leaked video footage confirmed by CNN.
“We believe there are explosives inside these trucks,” Kotin said. – And it is very dangerous.
A potential fire could spread to a nearby reactor because the fire brigade’s entrance is blocked, he said.
He believes the Russians will try to switch the output of the Zaporozhye power plant from the Ukrainian grid to the Russian grid, which would involve a “complete shutdown” of the plant using diesel generators to cool the reactors. According to him, such an operation would be very dangerous.
The region’s governor, appointed by Russia, later said work was underway to restore power to the region. He, in turn, blamed the Ukrainian military actions for the blackouts.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said late Thursday that all six reactors remain disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid.
The growing dangers of working at the plant exacerbated the psychological pressure on the remaining backbone of the workforce. An employee of the plant, Daria, says that now only 10-15% of the personnel remain in her workshop, who live day after day in a “state of impotent anger.”
“Psychologically, it is already very difficult,” said Daria. “But I don’t know when and how we will leave.”
Daria said the plant’s technical staff is “doing the impossible” to keep it running without incident, but added that the world “has no idea how serious everything is, how everything hangs by a thin thread.”
“The psychological state of a person can lead to accidents,” Daria said. “In factories like ours, it’s not the equipment that’s to blame. People are important here, their decisions, their reactions to signals, to any violations, to any damage.
The IAEA is currently negotiating with Russia on an urgent inspection of the nuclear power plant to assess the safety of operation. But Daria said she thinks “nothing will change” even if it does.
“My only hope is the Ukrainian army,” Daria said, but fears what the Russians will do if they come. “They are so fond of saying: “We will destroy you,” and they already have an order for this. That’s why people leave.”