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Terror at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
Amid allegations that Russia could blow up the plant, a Ukrainian human rights group has documented torture at the facility.
KYIV -- By now, you might have heard about the purported Russian threat of blowing up the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), the largest atomic facility in Europe. While nuclear experts have concluded that detonating the plant located in Russian-occupied Ukraine would be unlikely to trigger a large-scale radiological event like Chornobyl or Fukushima, Truth Hounds, a top Ukrainian human rights group, has released new documentation of torture at the plant, which it said constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On September 19, the group released a report titled "In a Nuclear Prison: How Rosatom Turned Europe's Largest Nuclear Power Plant Into a Torture Chamber and What the World Can Do to Stop It." According to Dmitry Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, the town where the plant is located, since Russia took control of the plant in March 2022, approximately one thousand people have been detained, tortured, or mistreated in a network of torture chambers located in the town; there is at least one confirmed case of a plant employee being tortured to death. Truth Hounds said that while Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear energy corporation in control of the plant, generally hasn't had its employees do the torturing of ZNPP employees themselves -- that is done by agents from Russian security services (FSB) -- it is fully aware of it. The group also said that under international law, Rosatom's knowledge legally constitutes tacit permission of the torture.
Truth Hounds called for the West to adopt sanctions against Rosatom and for countries to prosecute Rosatom and its top management. However, Rosatom has remained largely unsanctioned by the West due to its significant global role in uranium mining and uranium enrichment for nuclear power plants. (In July, the U.S. sanctioned two subsidiaries of Rosatom.) Georgetown Professor Thane Gustafson wrote in a January Substack post that while the Western nuclear industry has had decades of neglect since a string of accidents beginning at Three Mile Island, Rosatom has been thriving and exporting its technology: it sold $10 billion worth of products abroad in 2022, a 15 percent increase from the year before, and its current foreign orders stand at over $200 billion to countries including Hungary, India, and Egypt. "In short, Russian nuclear power is on a roll," wrote the Russian energy expert.
Dmytro Koval, Legal Director of Truth Hounds, said in an interview with Public Sphere that governments could manage despite Rosatom's grip on the uranium supply chain: "There are ways around it: individual sanctions, sanctions against parts of Rosatom, and making it more expensive for Rosatom to make certain transactions."
Nevertheless, governments will have to weigh their cooperation with Rosatom with the human rights violations that Truth Hounds has uncovered. (Slain Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina also worked as a field researcher for Truth Hounds.) The group has documented severe beatings, electric shocks, strangulation and suffocation, forced digging of one's own grave, mock executions, threats of rape against ZNPP employees and their relatives, and detention in inhuman conditions. Ukrainian employees have been tortured to pressure them to work for Rosatom or out of real or perceived allegiance to the Ukrainian government.
Victim 26026 worked in the physical protection of the plant. (Truth Hounds replaced his name with a number for security reasons.) In March 2022, he was detained by two men, whom he believed to be FSB officers. They tried to get him to write a confession. When he refused, two other armed men arrived, drove him to the forest, beat him, forced him to dig his own grave, shot past his head, threatened to shoot his knee, and forced a plastic bag with diesel fuel on his head. He was detained and then released, then beaten again, and agents tried to get him to sign a contract with Rosatom. Eventually, he escaped Enerhodar.
According to Roman Avramenko, Truth Hounds' executive director, some ZNPP employees were able to leave through occupied Ukraine, cross into Russia, and then into the EU via the Baltics. However, in addition to the risks of shelling, escapees must pass through filtration camps, where FSB agents interrogate Ukrainians and search their phones for signs of perceived disloyalty. Some have disappeared along the way. Avramenko said that former employees residing in the EU still fear Russian agents. Other eyewitnesses that the group spoke to are still working at the plant.
Koval, the group's legal director, told Public Sphere that many ZNPP employees are not easily replaceable, since they know the plant's inner workings. About 200 out of 650 employees are internationally licensed as nuclear workers and specifically protected from harm under treaty law due to the fact that their jobs involve nuclear safety. Yet, Koval said those who are the most competent are punished, which is a feature of Russian bureaucracy. "The whole mindset of many Russian officials is completely fucked up," he said. "There is this idea that if you're not loyal, you're more dangerous than if you're not competent."
It's of course unquantifiable how much more dangerous torture is making the plant, but it undoubtedly has effects on nuclear safety to work in a facility where threats of violence are ubiquitous. Koval told Public Sphere that some of the current safety concerns at the plant "are connected to incompetence, tiredness, or this atmosphere of fear."
Truth Hounds hopes that international sanctions will deprive Rosatom of profits and, according to Koval, employees still working at the plant hope that the world will take action against the horrors there. However, ultimately, as with many Western sanctions, it's unclear what the effect of them would be, though the moral case is clear. Until then, the group is doing a service: amid a war of words between Russia and Ukraine about what might happen at the plant, it is reminding the world of what has happened at the nuclear facility, which is a horror in and of itself.
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