Russia plans to relocate about 2,700 Ukrainian staff from Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Ukraine’s atomic energy company has claimed, warning of a potential “catastrophic lack of qualified personnel” at the Zaporizhzhia facility in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine.
Workers who signed employment contracts with Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom following Moscow’s capture of the Zaporizhzhia plant early in the war are set to be taken to Russia along with their families, Energoatom said in a Telegram post on Wednesday.
The company did not specify whether the employees would be forcibly moved out of the plant, nor was it immediately possible to verify Energoatom’s claims about Moscow’s plan.
Removing staff would “exacerbate the already extremely urgent issue” of staff shortages, Energoatom said.
The Moscow-installed governor of the region ordered civilian evacuations from the area last Saturday, including from the nearby city of Enerhodar where most plant workers live. The full scope of the evacuation order was not clear.
Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia plant days after Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russian occupiers left the Ukrainian staff in place to keep the plant running but the exact number of workers currently at the plant is not known.
Fighting near the plant has fuelled fears of a potential catastrophic incident like the one at Chornobyl, in northern Ukraine, where a reactor exploded in 1986 and contaminated a vast area in the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Zaporizhzhia is one of the 10 biggest nuclear plants in the world. While its six reactors have been shut down for months, it still needs power and qualified staff to operate crucial cooling systems and other safety features.
Soon after Russian troops overran the plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that low staffing levels “seriously compromised” one of the fundamental factors in nuclear safety and security, which is that “operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure.”
The IAEA has deployed a handful of staff at Zaporizhzhia in an effort to ensure its safety.
Kremlin-installed authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region are accelerating their push to relocate local residents, including families of workers at the plant, due to an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, Kyiv officials said.
Military analysts say Ukraine may focus its expected counteroffensive on the Zaporizhzhia region, trying to split Russian forces in two by pushing through to the Azov Sea coast in the south.
Relatives of Zaporizhzhia plant staff who agreed to relocate were taken to Russia’s southern Rostov region and placed in temporary camps, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
It added that plant employees are currently prohibited from leaving Enerhodar. It made no mention of the alleged Russian plan referred to by Energoatom.