For Ukrainians Near Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant, Life Goes On

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, keeps warning of an impending nuclear tragedy. His military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, recently said the Russians have “drafted and approved” a plan to sabotage the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s biggest.

Many local officials have fallen into line, and last week communities across central Ukraine snapped into action and held emergency drills to prepare themselves for a disaster that the officials believe could spread a radioactive cloud over the entire area.

But here on the streets of Nikopol, the city that lies just across the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied nuclear plant, its cooling towers poking up through the afternoon haze, the attitude is a little different.

“I’m not worried,” said Nadia Zhylina, a retired factory worker. “Not at all.”

She was wheeling a cart down a sunny boulevard, toenails painted, mascara on. The only thing she was radiating was calmness.

If there is a symbol of Ukrainian insouciance in the face of clear and present danger, it might just be this city. Nikopol lies within four miles of the besieged nuclear plant, but if you arrived on Monday and took a walk around, you might be fooled into thinking things were normal.

People waited at bus stops, lugged heavy plastic bags as they exited supermarkets, pushed strollers down sidewalks. Traffic circulated smoothly. Seagulls squawked in the sky. At the city’s main park, a group of teenagers did what kids the world over do — they lounged on their backs in the high summer grass and stared at their phones.

“I have a wonderful life,” said Maksym Baklanov, one of them.

Not only is Nikopol a hair’s breadth from the nuclear power plant, it also gets shelled nearly every day by Russian troops just across the river. But about half the city’s prewar population of 100,000 still lives here, and there was no visible exodus, despite all the recent warnings of impending doom.

Beyond grit and defiance, there may be another explanation for that, and it’s shared by countless Ukrainians who mystify outsiders by continuing to live perilously close to the front lines of the biggest European war in generations.

Many people simply do not have other options.

Of course they would relocate to a safer place, they say, if — and then they rattle off a long list of ifs — if they could find a new job, if they had the money to rent a second apartment, if they had a good car, if they had an obvious place to go.

“We constantly talk about leaving,” said Yana Lahunova, Maksym’s mom. “I have another boy, too. But where should we go? Who really needs us?”

She said that everyone in town was talking about the nuclear plant and the possibility that the Russians, who seized it last year, might do something. But that doesn’t translate into fleeing.

In some ways, it’s a miracle nothing has happened.

Never before has one of the world’s largest nuclear facilities fallen into the bull’s-eye of a large-scale war. Already, parts of two reactors have been hit by artillery and by a large-caliber bullet, though most engineers believe the plant is strong enough to withstand such attacks.

The Ukrainian engineers keeping the plant from melting down are reaching their own breaking point. They have been working for months at gunpoint, according to interviews with current and former employees. And Russian soldiers have dragged scientists and technicians off to a place called “the pit” where they were interrogated and beaten, a former director said.

Now the Ukrainian army is on the march, trying to prove to itself and the world that it can reclaim territory that the much bigger Russian Army has seized. As the long-awaited counteroffensive begins to show small gains, Ukrainian officials say Russian troops at the plant are increasingly desperate.

According to Ukrainian officials, the Russians recently mined the cooling pond that keeps the reactors from melting down and have begun to withdraw some of their own experts, an ominous sign, they say.

“The situation is very dangerous,” Mr. Zelensky said on Saturday. “We have received information from our intelligence that Russia is planning to cause a radiation release.”

Western experts have expressed less alarm. The conventional wisdom is that the Russians know a nuclear incident could carry terrifying, and unknown, consequences and therefore it’s unlikely — though not impossible — that the Russians would intentionally set one off.

The international inspectors who remain at the plant reported recently that they had not seen any mines but said they needed more access. Biden administration officials said that they did not believe a threat was imminent but that they were watching “very, very closely.”

Ukrainians are trying to take some comfort from that.

“I can’t argue with American reconnaissance,” said Yevhen Yevtushenko, Nikopol’s regional military administrator. “They must be right. I hope they are.”

Mr. Yevtushenko is an imposing figure with a long gray beard, crew cut and pistol strapped to his hip. When asked why he wasn’t ordering an evacuation of Nikopol if the nation’s leaders truly believe a nuclear diaster is in the offing, he said: “I wish people would leave but we can’t force them. Ukraine is a free country and nothing has happened — yet.”

As if Nikopol needed any more hardships, it ran out of water three weeks ago. When a major dam that was occupied by the Russians was suddenly destroyed, the reservoir that Nikopol and many other communities relied on ran dry. The city is now scrambling to provide residents with bottled water and water from other sources.

This leads to a point that Ukrainian officials have begun to make: If the Russians, as many Ukrainians believe, blew up the dam and caused widespread environmental mayhem, why should anyone doubt they would sabotage a nuclear plant?

Down by the dried-up river bed, one can sense Nikopol’s grander days. Old, solid houses, white paint flaking off their bricks, look out over the river where people used to race sailboats in the summer and in the winter skate across the thick ice.

“We used to call this place the Green Sea,” said Alla Syrotenko, the deputy military administrator, who grew up here. “It was so beautiful.”

Now, she worries, it could become “a dead zone.”

Ms. Syrotenko stood looking for a long time at the nuclear plant in the distance. The sun beat down on her and on the profusion of wildflowers in the yards.

“I bet the Russians will do something,” she said. “I don’t know if it will be big or small, but they are trying to frighten us.”

“But,” she added, “I will be the last one to leave.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn and Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting from Nikopol.

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