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Work goes on inside a Ukrainian nuclear power plant amid threats of Russian bombs

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

International inspectors have not been able to secure a nuclear power plant occupied by Russian troops. It is still in a battle zone.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've seen images of this plant since the start of the war in Ukraine. Russian soldiers, you may recall, fought their way in. They're now defending that area as Ukrainian troops push back. During all of that time, the plant has been operating. Civilians go to work there every day.

MARTIN: NPR's Ashley Westerman talked to a former employee of the nuclear power plant who worked there for months after Russians took it over, and she joins us now. Ashley, introduce us to this person.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Yeah. So I spoke with 32-year-old Andriy Tuz. He's a 10-year veteran at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and has done a number of jobs throughout the years. But last year, he got an offer to join the PR team as deputy, and he said yes. And then he actually became head of PR on February 24. And he says everything changed on March 3, when Russian tanks started rolling through the plant's checkpoints.

MARTIN: And he was there, right?

WESTERMAN: Yes. Or rather, he was home in Enerhordar, which is the village closest to the plant. The village was attacked on March 3 and then the plant that night.

ANDRIY TUV: (Through interpreter) There was shooting. Not only the tanks were shooting, I also saw some incoming missiles above the city. Heard explosions - they sounded just like the crackle of fireworks.

WESTERMAN: And there were dozens of military vehicles about. And Tuv says many of the plant's buildings were hit by gunfire that night. And while it was scary, he and others who worked there actually figured they were in the safest place because they couldn't imagine either side attacking the area.

MARTIN: Wow. I can't imagine the stress of that. I mean, what did he tell you about working at the plant?

WESTERMAN: Tuv says that in the first days, even the first months, the Russians did not interfere in their work. They weren't allowed in their workplace or to approach the staff. But then things changed.

TUV: (Through interpreter) Russian soldiers started making the rounds and were forcing their way to the workplaces of the Ukrainian staff.

WESTERMAN: He says it's not like they were interfering in the day-to-day operations, Rachel. But just having those soldiers around had a big psychological impact on the workers and their families. It's just a big emotional upheaval. And he says the plant went from some 11,500 personnel before the war down to 1,200, to 1,800 now, which has put even more pressure on those who have decided to stay.

MARTIN: Yeah, I imagine. Has any of this affected the actual operation of the plant?

WESTERMAN: So the plant, he says, has been running. The water stayed on, but there is no internet and very, very little phone service. But what's most problematic is that the Russians have also parked and moved a lot of military equipment and munitions in or near the complex.

TUV: (Through interpreter) Tanks and military vehicles were also constantly moving. Sometimes they were next to the power units. The staff didn't know what to do. They had their rounds to make. They needed to check the equipment, but there was a tank right in front of it.

WESTERMAN: Tuv's went to work every day for four months, but things just got progressively worse and worse as time went on.

MARTIN: And he has since escaped Ukraine. Does he still keep in contact with people he knew who are working at the plant?

WESTERMAN: Yes, and he's actually now in Switzerland. He says he still keeps in touch with his fellow workers at the plant.

TUV: (Through interpreter) They're made to stay at their workplace overtime during shelling. They don't have normal work schedule, and much fewer people are available now. They don't have backup in case someone gets ill. There's enough staff, but it's much more difficult for them to perform their duties.

WESTERMAN: He says people are scared, and they want to leave. But he calls them heroes for ensuring the safety of the plant under such pressure. And Tuv says the only right thing to keep the plant safe and the thousands still working inside is to demilitarize the plant altogether.

MARTIN: NPR's Ashley Westerman reporting from Lviv. Thank you so much, Ashley.

WESTERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.