Update, August 26, 2022: Since this fact check published, the Voice of America's Georgian news service published an extensive interview with an engineer from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. He confirmed that Russian forces staged artillery and other military equipment in and around the site. He said Russian forces bombed areas near the plant in an apparent effort to cast the Ukraine military as the attacker.
On August 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emanuel Macron the Ukrainian army was threatening a nuclear catastrophe.
Recapping a phone call between the leaders, the Kremlin news service reported:
“Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that the regular strikes on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant by the Ukrainian military creates the danger of a major nuclear disaster that could lead to radiation contamination of vast territories.”
Trouble is, Russia is creating the problem. Multiple reports say Russia has threatened the plant and is using it as a military base and shield for lobbing artillery across the Dnipro River. Ukraine denies shelling the plant and says Russia is doing so.
The Russian army seized the plant in early March. Still, Ukrainian engineers continue to operate the facility, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, providing a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.
On March 4, Dmitry Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, where the plant is located, said the Russian army was continuously shelling the facility’s buildings and had caused a fire.
According to Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear power station operator, 500 Russian soldiers are at the plant along with rocket launchers.
“They [Russian forces] use it [the power plant] like a shield against the Ukrainian forces because nobody from Ukraine is going to do something,” Kotin told the BBC in early August.
The Ukrainian city of Nikopol, located seven miles across the Dnipro River, has been regularly shelled from the nuclear power plant, multiple news organizations have reported.
According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C., think tank, Russian troops stationed at the plant may be trying to provoke Ukraine to retaliate.
“Russian forces are likely using Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Enerhodar to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine, likely in an effort to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” the ISW wrote on August 3.
The Insider, a Latvian independent online newspaper, reported on August 5 that Russian troops had mined parts of the plant, including turbine rooms, and was storing ammunition there. The Insider cited its sources at Zaporizhzhia and video footage.
On August 11, Britain’s The Times newspaper published a video from Zaporizhzhia employees that captured the sound of mortars being fired and landing nearby. Only a second or two passed between the sound of a mortar being fired and its explosion on impact.
Energoatom head Kotin said the short time interval meant the fire was coming from nearby Russian troops.
Before the shelling, Russian troops left their positions and hid in a bunker, while Ukrainian workers remained in place, the Times reported.
On August 12, the BBC published interviews with employees of Zaporizhzhia in which they said Russian troops were using the plant as a base and holding the employees hostage.
Former plant metalworker Serhiy Shvets managed to move to the territory controlled by Ukraine. In an interview with The New York Times, he said he was worried about the Zaporizhzhia plant, the city and the world. The plant is under the control of the Russian military, which knows very little about nuclear power safety. “They are like a monkey with a grenade, not really understanding the threat they are posing,” he said.
On August 14, 42 countries, including the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom, along with the European Union, demanded that Russia immediately withdraw its military forces and all other unauthorized personnel from the plant.
“[I]t is undeniable that Russia’s invasion and its continued presence at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities significantly raise the risk of nuclear incidents and accidents,” they said.
On August 17, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pressed Moscow to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the plant and to withdraw all Russian troops stationed there.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected calls to demilitarize the area around the plant.
On August 19, CNN geolocated and confirmed the authenticity of a video showing Russian military vehicles inside a turbine hall connected to one of the six reactors at Zaporizhzhia.
The Russian occupiers tortured employees of the Zaporizhzhia to force them to operate the facility, said Energoatom head Petro Kotin. In an interview with Sky News, he expressed hope that independent international inspectors would be able to visit the plant in the next ten days.