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“They put him in the basement, tortured him, and tore his tendons.” How Russia terrorizes ZNPP staff to keep a tight grip on the plant

Despite the presence of IAEA inspectors at the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Russia continues to abduct, interrogate and torture plant employees According to Ukraine's Energoatom, more than 200 people have already been kidnapped, with some deported to Ukrainian territory, some held for ransom, and some gone missing. Experts believe that the occupation authorities cannot operate the ZNPP without Ukrainian personnel, so the plant has become a burden for them. The IAEA says that a safety zone will soon be created around the ZNPP, which may suggest the withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory. For now, however, the Kremlin continues to control the plant, registering it in the name of a dedicated legal entity, which does not advertise its connection to Rosatom (the state company is afraid of Western sanctions) despite being fully controlled by it.

  • A maximum security NPP

  • Interrogations and more interrogations

  • A low-maintenance NPP

  • Modernization vs. Rosatom

  • Rosatom's «sub-subsidiary”

  • A failed attempt to legalize the NPP

  • Waiting for a “goodwill gesture”

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A maximum security NPP

“Mr. Murashov, there are three chairs: the Russia chair, the Ukraine chair, and the nuclear energy chair. I suggest that you sit in the nuclear energy chair and do everything in the interests of the nuclear industry,” it was in the spirit of such a prison riddle that Russians offered Ihor Murashov, the director general of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, to keep his post. Renat Karchaa, advisor to the director of Rosenergoatom, did not seem perturbed about approaching him in this fashion, as he shared on the program Nashe Vremya («Our Time») on Radio Rossii. According to Karchaa, he spoke to Murashov “at the very beginning of our acquaintance, in the second or third meeting”.

On September 30, Ihor Murashov was abducted. His car was stopped by a Russian patrol. Murashov was blindfolded and taken to an unknown destination. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky called the kidnapping an act of Russian terror. Murashov was released three days after the intervention of IAEA head Rafael Grossi, UN representatives, and French President Emmanuel Macron. During this time, the CEO of the ZNPP was made to appear in a commercial for the Rossiya-24 channel and was accused of “cooperating with the SBU”, despite his position implying the need to work with national security services by definition. Then he was deported to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The story of Murashov's kidnapping is just one of many.

When Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA, announced early in September that a mission had been launched at the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the residents of Enerhodar and the plant's employees breathed a sigh of relief. At the time, it seemed that the constant presence of IAEA inspectors would minimize, if not end, both the shelling of the plant and the pressure on the Ukrainian employees. However, the persecution did not stop. Olga Kosharna, an independent nuclear energy expert and former member of the Board of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, told The Insider that the Russian military was still trying to force Ukrainian personnel to stay by preventing their exit to Kyiv-controlled territory.

The Russian military is still trying to force Ukrainian personnel to stay by preventing their exit to Kyiv-controlled territory

Russians form lists of NPP employees whose movements are restricted and hand them over to the checkpoints. First of all, they focus on managerial staff, whose onsite presence is critical to the plant's operation. Kosharna says that some employees are forced to sign contracts under the threat of having their family members taken hostage:

“I was approached on November 26 by a mid-level executive. She was desperate. She has a wheelchair child but couldn't leave. She is on the list, and her husband also works at the ZNPP. They told her straight out: if you don't sign, we'll take your husband ‘to the basement’. The woman decided to skip work.

The expression ‘take to the basement’ is ingrained among Enerhodar residents, since abductees are most commonly taken to basements of buildings for interrogation and torture.

Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear power operator, also reports a new wave of repression. According to the operator, on December 8, Russian servicemen stormed the office of the ZNPP Social Programs Directorate and severely beat Directorate head Oleksii Trubenkov and his deputy Yurii Androsov in the presence of other employees. Then they were taken to an unknown location. Shift supervisor Konstantin Beiner, who is responsible for nuclear and radiation safety, also ended up in the basement. According to The Insider's sources, such excesses are business as usual at the ZNPP.

“A unit shift supervisor I know was reluctant to renew his contract in late November. He spent a week laying low at home. Then they came and took him away. Tortured him. Tore his tendons. And let him go,” Olga Kosharna recalls.

As we learned earlier, there are more locations where the Russians are holding Ukrainian NPP personnel. One of the scariest places is the so-called “Hole” or “Pit”. The invaders set it up in a basement of the permanent headquarters of Ukraine's National Guard in Military Unit 3042. Before the Russians came, the nuclear power plant perimeter was guarded by Ukrainian troops. The Hole is located about 1.5 kilometers away from the reactors.

The sign marks the so-called "Hole” – the invaders’ torture cell in the former National Guard of Ukraine headquarters at Military Unit 3042
The sign marks the so-called "Hole” – the invaders’ torture cell in the former National Guard of Ukraine headquarters at Military Unit 3042

According to its former prisoners, detentions and torture are carried out by an FSB unit. Employees have been beaten, have had their hands shot through, and have been tortured with electric shocks. As The Wall Street Journal found out, detainees spend anywhere from a few days to several months in the Hole. At least one prisoner, ZNPP diver Andriy Honcharuk, is known to have died. Volodymyr Zhavoronok, a 49-year-old ZNPP employee spent 53 days in an overcrowded cell. According to him, there were so many prisoners that the room was nicknamed “Tetris” because it took ages to find enough room on the floor to get some sleep. During the interrogation, the occupants pulled off Zhavoronok's fingernail, beat him, poured water on him, and attached electrodes to his ears, demanding details on SBU and AFU informants. Serhii Shvets, an energy repair unit engineer, was shot in his apartment, but doctors managed to save him. Like Volodymyr Zhavoronok, he managed to escape to Ukrainian-controlled territory. According to Kosharna, the Russians contacted some of the detainees’ relatives with ransom demands:

“I know of two cases from my sources. The family of an imprisoned ZNPP employee came up with 100,000 hryvnias (about $2.700); the other's relatives paid $5 thousand, but he is still in custody.”

Interrogations and more interrogations

The Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom has set up a dedicated call-center offering consultation for employees who found themselves in temporarily occupied territories or managed to leave them. However, the help these people are getting is far from professional or comprehensive. On the contrary, employees who made it out of Enerhodar are interrogated by Energoatom officials with the use of polygraphs. In addition, everyone returning from the ZNPP also has to pass a polygraph test and thorough questioning by the SBU. Incarceration, threats, torture, and lack of psychological help lead to acute stress, nervous breakdowns, and severe depression in the powerplant staff, remarks Kosharna:

“An acquaintance of mine who heads a department at the ZNPP has completely lost it because of what he went through. I mildly suggested that he should probably consider getting help. I didn't push, but he was furious. He did go to a therapist, after all. He's doing a program right now. In captivity, his cellmates saved him from suicide. He couldn't stand the torture and the pain.”

While abductions of top managers and executives make a splash, no one fights for ordinary staff, according to Olga Kosharna. «In Ukrainian media broadcasts, I pointed to the importance of providing access to Enerhodar for international humanitarian organizations. So far, my appeals have been fruitless,» complains Kosharna.

However, many employees who managed to leave are still willing to return to the Zaporizhzhia NPP after its liberation. After his release from Russian captivity, Ihor Murashov was appointed chief engineer of the ZNPP by Energoatom. He is now working from Kyiv – as is another new Energoatom appointee, the acting director general of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Dmytro Verbytskyi.

Meanwhile, the fate of several employees of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which the Russians captured in March and abandoned in April, is still unknown. More than 160 National Guardsmen responsible for the plant’s security were also captured. According to Kosharna, they were taken to Russian-controlled territories. Only some of them were exchanged.

A low-maintenance NPP

The Russians controlling the ZNPP are faced with an acute shortage of staff, which could explain the new wave of repressions against the Ukrainian personnel, who are being forced to join the ZNPP Operating Company (EO ZAES). Several sources told The Insider that the occupation authorities cannot keep the plant running without Ukrainian specialists. Despite the “blacklists”, many of the Ukrainians have fled; and those who have not signed contracts are not allowed into the NPP and have had their passes blocked.

The Russian side denies staffing problems. Late in November, Renat Karchaa, advisor to Rosenergoatom's director, stated that the NPP had successfully formed a team of employees who had agreed to work under Russian management. He called the reports of pressure on the nuclear workers and underestimation of the number of employees “the Ukrainian regime’s provocations”.

Russian military vehicles on the grounds of the Zaporizhzhia NPP
Russian military vehicles on the grounds of the Zaporizhzhia NPP

The exact number of employees who have signed a contract with the Russian organization is unknown; the same goes for the overall headcount of remaining personnel. Before the occupation, the plant employed around 11,000 people. Early fall reports suggested there were 6,800 employees left, which decreased to 3,000 or so in October and November, according to Olga Kosharna. Yuriy Chernychuk, the Russian-appointed director of the NPP, said that about 50% of the team had left, with the remaining employees covering three eight-hour shifts a day – whereas each power unit is supposed to have five daily shifts.

«Yuriy Chernychuk was the chief engineer under Director Murashov; he has now replaced Oleg Romanenko, former chief engineer of Russia's Balakovo NPP, at the ZNPP,» Kosharna explained. “Chernychuk signed a contract with the Moscow-based operating company. He explained to his colleagues that the contract, concluded under duress, was null and void. His task is to keep the ZNPP in a workable and safe condition. And when the AFU liberates the station, he is ready to answer for his actions under Ukrainian law.”

Four of the ZNPP's six reactors are currently operating in cold shutdown mode, generating power only for the plant's internal needs. The remaining two units are in a state of hot shutdown: they do not supply electricity but provide heat to Enerhodar. According to Kosharna, the invaders have dropped the idea of reconnecting the NPP to Russia’s power grid. Meanwhile, they are just as unlikely to use the plant to supply electricity to the Ukrainian energy system, to which it is connected. In all appearances, the Russians are unable to maintain the full-scale operation of the NPP, and therefore, will only use it for blackmail, the expert believes.

Modernization vs. Rosatom

In recent years, Ukraine has impressively modernized its power units, which is precisely why Rosatom employees need the ZNPP's Ukrainian staff so badly. The Zaporizhzhia NPP uses VVER-1000 reactors – the same type used at Russia's Kalinin, Balakovo, and Rostov nuclear power plants, so Rosatom pulled specialists from these NPPs to run the ZNPP. However, whereas all of these reactors share similar main characteristics, says Andrei Ozharovsky, nuclear physicist and radioactive waste management expert of the Russian Socio-Ecological Union, the differences in electronics make controlling the power unit difficult even for those familiar with this type of reactor.

First and foremost, the Zaporizhzhia NPP had its automatic process control systems (PCS) upgraded, explains Olga Kosharna. These are complex, technology-intensive suites of hardware and software controls. The Zaporizhzhia NPP now uses equipment from Impuls, a research and production center based in Sievierodonetsk, Radiy, a research and production center in Kropyvnytskyi, and Vestron, a joint venture with Westinghouse (USA) in Kharkiv. Automated process control systems are Rosatom's weakest point, Ozharovsky believes:

“It’s not just a single parameter that needs controlling but thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands. What happens when the operator controls only a dozen parameters is what we saw at Chornobyl. On the dials, everything looks fine, but in fact, the reactor is exploding. Admittedly, this is not 1986. Electronics have gone a long way. And it's no secret that the West has made more progress than Russia.”

The ZNPP has fully replaced all of its unit control boards which bring together all elements of the unified system, such as control devices, automatics, communication systems, and computer control systems, as well as engineers' workstations. “If the entire unit control board was replaced, Rosatom staff may not even understand where the indicators are and how to activate this or that control system,” Ozharovsky explains.

Employees of the Zaporizhzhia NPP at work in the engine room of Unit 5
Employees of the Zaporizhzhia NPP at work in the engine room of Unit 5

According to the expert, at different times ZNPP power units were upgraded with protection and control systems, software and hardware turbine control complexes, and other solutions. All of these systems were custom-made, tailored to the needs of a specific NPP. Ozharovsky insists that Russians are now looking everywhere for former ZNPP employees:

“They may have data that will make it easier for the Russians to control the ZNPP's reactors. They could know the properties of the core and the reactor’s response to particular actions. Proper control is critical to safety. Everyone knows that nuclear power is only safe if everything is done right. And to do everything right, you need to know the properties of the reactor, the electronics, and the nuclear fuel to the dot.”

The fuel at the Zaporizhzhia NPP was also replaced from Russian to American, Westinghouse. This process took four years. Kosharna doubts that the Russians are aware of the new fuel's properties:

«The [reactor] core area is calculated every time. We need to know the technical characteristics, the hydraulic behavior, and the thermodynamic behavior of Westinghouse fuel. I'm sure the American company will sue Rosatom for stealing their know-how and documents on this fuel.”

According to Kosharna, Rosatom plans to bring in licensed specialists from Russia to man one of the units. «And they will be standing behind our engineers’ backs at the control panel, learning from them hands-on,» the expert suggests.

Rosatom's «sub-subsidiary”

The Russian entity seeking to forcibly employ ZNPP employees is called the Zaporizhzhia NPP Operating Company (EO ZAES). Established by a special presidential decree, it has technically nothing to do with Rosatom, as the Russian nuclear giant does not want to fall under sanctions. Russia has set up two more entities to manage the ZNPP: private joint-stock company EO ZAES with a charter capital of $28.5 million and federal state unitary enterprise Zaporozhskaya AES (Zaporizhzhia NPP) with an authorized capital of only $7,000, which is the lower threshold established in Art. 12 of the Federal Law “On State and Municipal Unitary Enterprises”.

There is no mention of the operating company in the lists of affiliated entities, although all of Rosatom’s federal state unitary enterprises (abbreviated in Russian as FGUP) normally indicate the affiliation on their websites. By contrast, EO ZAES uses vague language, stating that the company “is supported by Rosenergoatom”, which is Rosatom's fuel division. Nevertheless, it is Rosatom that directly manages the plant, as Rosenergoatom is the sole founder and shareholder of EO ZAES. Rosenergoatom's parent company is Atomenergoprom JSC, which, in turn, belongs to Rosatom, as per its official website. EO ZAES was registered on October 3, two days before Vladimir Putin signed the official decree on the acceptance of ZNPP facilities into federal ownership.

A failed attempt to legalize the NPP

The Russians appointed Yuriy Chernychuk, the chief engineer of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, to the post of director general of the plant. After that, in early December, Ukraine's State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate withdrew his permit to perform organizational and administrative functions at the plant. As a result, the nuclear power plant does not have a single manager with a Ukrainian license left. Under Ukrainian law, its operation is no longer possible.

Interestingly, under Russian law, the ZNPP is also in the gray area, since Russian legislation does not provide for the seizure of nuclear power plants or nationalization of foreign nuclear facilities. Neither has the issue of including the nuclear power plant in the national energy system been discussed with the Russian parliament.

Signed on October 5 in an attempt to legalize the nuclear power plant, Putin's Decree No. 711 transfers the ownership of the plant to Russia and authorizes the work of current plant personnel under existing Ukrainian licenses. We see an unprecedented case of Russia operating a nuclear power plant based on licenses issued by a foreign state, says Andrei Ozharovsky. He notes that Ukraine could revoke the licenses at any time, leaving Russia in control of a nuclear power plant whose personnel are working without authorization documents whatsoever.

Putin's decree states that the Ukrainian licenses will remain valid “until permits are issued under Russian legislation”. However, in addition to personal licenses, Russian law requires licensing the nuclear power plant itself. A license is required for each power unit, the dry storage of spent nuclear fuel, and the rest of the facilities on the plant site. Olga Kosharna explains that personal licenses are much easier to obtain – all it takes is passing an exam on nuclear and radiation safety. The operating license, however, is much harder to obtain:

“It requires a lot of paperwork. We need to prepare a safety analysis response from a nuclear power plant operator. It takes time. Rostechnadzor [Russia’s Federal Service for Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Supervision] must review nuclear and radiation safety. There is also a state expert review of fire safety, environmental impact, and construction review. You can't do it in a year. That's why Putin's decree sets such a deadline: until January 1, 2028.”

Andrei Ozharovsky believes that under Russian law, it is practically impossible to obtain Russian licenses to operate the Zaporizhzhia NPP, primarily due to the presence of foreign equipment:

“You have to go through the entire licensing process. The licensing body is Rostechnadzor. A license is issued based on license justification documents, which are tricky to prepare considering that some of the equipment at the ZNPP is unfamiliar to Rosatom.”

Moreover, Rosatom specialists themselves have repeatedly warned that the conversion of Soviet-designed NPPs to American nuclear fuel increases the risk of an accident. According to this logic, the Zaporizhzhia plant fails to meet Russian safety requirements, so its operation cannot be authorized.

Waiting for a “goodwill gesture”

Difficulties experienced by Russian specialists in operating the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the lack of Ukrainian personnel, the inability to establish electricity transmission amid ongoing hostilities, and legal obstacles in Russia – all of this suggests the possibility of yet another “goodwill gesture” from the Russian military. The head of Ukraine's Energoatom Petro Kotin also speculated about the likelihood of such an outcome:

“You know, it's like they're packing their suitcases, grabbing everything they can get their hands on.”

“Kiriyenko will dump the NPP,” anonymous Telegram channels, including pro-war ones, predict. It is quite obvious how anxious Russia is to squash the discussion of its possible withdrawal from the plant or its transfer to Ukraine or a third party. Some of the posts were deleted shortly after.

The primary beneficiaries of the exit scenario are possibly Rosatom officials, who are wary to include the plant in their assets because it multiplies the risk of sanctions against the entire nuclear sector, threatening their personal well-being and opportunities of building nuclear power plants abroad for non-refundable government loans.

Nevertheless, as the White House stated, so far there are no signs of the Russian troops withdrawing from the ZNPP grounds. A few Russian experts hold the same opinion. “Wishful thinking,” an energy expert explained to The Insider. Olga Kosharna also tends to disagree that Rosatom fears sanctions and is staging a retreat from the ZNPP. Energy expert Kostyantyn Batozsky also does not believe the Russians will leave anytime soon. According to him, the invaders need the station as a military springboard to bombard Nikopol and Kryvyi Rih.

Thus, the Kremlin opposes “demilitarizing” the territory of the plant, which implies the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the perimeter. The Russian authorities approve the creation of a safety zone around the nuclear power plant, apparently expecting this status to be easier to circumvent in terms of deploying weapons. However, if we were to go by the Kremlin’s official statements, there have been no such weapons at the nuclear site.

By contrast, the West seems to interpret the security zone and demilitarization as more or less the same thing. IAEA Director Raphael Grossi has stated repeatedly that an agreement is within sight and that it unquestionably implies the withdrawal of heavy weapons. French president Emmanuel Macron said on December 13 at a conference on financial support for Ukraine that “we have managed to achieve the withdrawal of heavy and light weapons from the territory of the ZNPP”. Almost immediately, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov replied:

«Russia undertakes not to deploy offensive weapons or strike forces there. As for security, it must of course cover the entire scope of the plant's security and safety needs,” Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev commented on the situation around ZNPP. He did not specify whether this security will be Russian or Ukrainian, or whether the parties will find a third option. However, even if the guards are Russians, they will not be able to fend off the AFU without heavy weapons. Therefore, Russia places a huge emphasis on keeping military equipment close to the ZNPP.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in early December that withdrawal of the station from Russian control is out of the question. That said, the invaders also said as much about Kherson, which they had to abandon after all: “Russia is here forever.” Today, it is only true on paper. We cannot rule out a similar scenario for the Zaporizhzhia NPP. What happened during Russia’s retreat from the Chornobyl NPP could happen again: there, the invaders vandalized the facilities and damaged unique foreign equipment at Ecocenter. Meanwhile, representatives of Ukraine's nuclear engineering community urge to prioritize saving the lives of abducted ZNPP employees and avoiding a nuclear catastrophe at a poorly managed plant over preserving equipment.

The article was prepared with a contribution from Nikolai Marchenko of Bivol

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