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Russian strikes stoke Ukrainian reminders of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Russian occupation of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has experts running through worst-case scenarios. I mean, just this morning, the plant lost external power for the second time in five days. And Ukraine is, of course, no stranger to nuclear accidents. In 1986, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic meltdown. NPR's Julian Hayda visited the site and has this report.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: There are only two places in the world that have firsthand experience with a Level 7 nuclear event. That's the most serious measure of a disaster that experts use. And one of those places happens to be in Ukraine.

I'm pulling up to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. It's a nearly 60-mile-wide territory that's been restricted to the public since a nuclear reactor exploded here in 1986. The disaster released radiation into the air all over Europe and will poison the land here for the next 20,000 or so years. This is one of those few places on Earth - alongside Fukushima in Japan - that became a living experiment for what would happen if things went wrong at a nuclear plant.

SERHIY BIRUK: (Through interpreter) I'm scared. I'll be honest - very, very scared.

HAYDA: That's Serhiy Biruk (ph), the head of operations here in Chernobyl. Now, he's not scared of the radiation here. That's a known quantity by now. What he is scared of is Russian negligence around nuclear sites that make it unknown.

BIRUK: (Through interpreter) The Russians are very good at trolling.

HAYDA: Trolling - getting a rise out of Ukraine and the world. Biruk thinks that's what's going on with the Russian occupation of nuclear sites.

BIRUK: (Through interpreter) Are they idiots? People are dying.

HAYDA: The human toll of Russia's invasion is something Biruk and his colleagues saw firsthand. Russia occupied the Chernobyl exclusion zone for more than a month after invading Ukraine in February. Now, Biruk's team is trying to get things in Chernobyl back to normal - at least as normal as it can be in one of the most irradiated places on Earth. In the months since Russia retreated, they're still discovering the destruction left in their wake - stolen car radios, tea kettles with parts left behind.

BIRUK: (Through interpreter) If they don't know what a tea kettle or a microwave is, then forgive me. They don't know what a nuclear power plant is.

HAYDA: His colleagues sit around a table eating fish soup.

(LAUGHTER)

HAYDA: They're a jovial bunch, but they sit here not having much to do. Much of their staff is on furlough. The state budget is all directed towards the war. Valentyn Rizhuk (ph) sits across from me. He made the soup and is the chief safety engineer here.

VALENTYN RIZHUK: (Through interpreter) My employees call me and ask if they'll ever get paid or if they should even find other work.

HAYDA: Usually, thousands of people work in Chernobyl, maintaining the vast area and controlling radiation levels. Having experienced occupation themselves, they can hardly imagine the stress people in Zaporizhzhia are under. There, Russia is still in control. Same goes for the hundreds of people who are allowed to live in the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCK CLANKING AND KEYS JINGLING)

HAYDA: Twenty miles away, but still within the zone, I meet Sophia Arkadiyivna (ph) at her home, which is surrounded by a massive vegetable garden - her main source of food.

SOPHIA ARKADIYIVNA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: Like other pensioners, she's allowed to live out her remaining years in her childhood home, even though it was condemned after the Chernobyl meltdown.

ARKADIYIVNA: (Through interpreter) Why are they terrorizing us? It's like Zaporizhzhia has to either belong to Russia or nobody at all.

HAYDA: The 77-year-old great-grandmother used to be the mayor of this village.

ARKADIYIVNA: (Through interpreter) All I ever wanted was for my grandchildren to see the fruits of their labor. And in Ukraine, they had it all. But Russia wants to take it all away with their nukes and their armies.

HAYDA: There isn't a meltdown at Zaporizhzhia yet, but international inspectors in Zaporizhzhia have said that conditions at the plant may lead to one if the area isn't demilitarized. I ask Sophia if she ever thought people would be talking about another possible nuclear meltdown in Ukraine.

ARKADIYIVNA: (Through interpreter) No. I couldn't even dream of it when the day of Armageddon comes.

HAYDA: She and others I meet here think that Ukraine can handle its own nuclear energy safely - that it can even be good, if not for the war. But it's out of their hands, they say. All hope is on Russia to retreat from Zaporizhzhia, just like they did from here months ago.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Chernobyl, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda