KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia intends to relocate around 3,100 Ukrainian staff from Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Ukraine’s atomic energy company claimed Wednesday, warning of a potential “catastrophic lack of qualified personnel” at the Zaporizhzhia facility in Russia-occupied southern Ukraine.
Workers who signed employment contracts with various affiliates of Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom following Moscow’s capture of the Zaporizhzhia plant early in the war are the bulk of those set to be taken to Russia along with their families, Energoatom said in a Telegram post.
Energoatom didn’t specify whether the employees would be forcibly moved out of the plant. It also wasn’t 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.
In fighting Wednesday, Ukrainian forces advanced as much as two kilometers (around a mile) near Bakhmut, the city that has been the major focus of intense battles for about eight months, Ukrainian ground forces commander Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said.
The claim couldn’t immediately be confirmed but the head of the Russian private army Wagner, which has led the grinding assault on Bakhmut, said that his forces were considering pulling back because of insufficient ammunition.
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin has previously complained that Russia wasn’t adequately supplying his fighters and said on Telegram on Wednesday that “I demand ammunition in order to save the lives of the fighters and put the squeeze on” Bakhmut, of which there is only about 5% left occupied by the enemy.”
An Energoatom representative reached by phone told The Associated Press that the Zaporizhzhia plant evacuation plan, which staff were aware of, covered roughly half of the plant’s 6,000 employees and was prompted by fears of a Ukraine counteroffensive in the area.
Some plant employees are already being relocated deeper into Russia-held territory and accommodated in the resort towns of Berdiansk and Kyrylivka on the Azov Sea coast, the person said on condition of anonymity because of safety fears.
Before the war, the plant employed around 11,000 people. About 500 Russian troops are stationed at the site, while at least 1,500 others are based in the nearby city of Enerhodar, the Ergoatom representative said.
The Russians have laid minefields around the plant and built defensive positions, the person said.
The Moscow-installed governor of the region ordered civilian evacuations from the area last Saturday, including Enerhodar. The full scope of the evacuation order wasn’t clear.
Fighting near the plant has fueled fears of a potential catastrophe like the one at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, where a reactor exploded in 1986 and spewed deadly radiation, contaminating a vast area in the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
On Wednesday, the city of Nikopol that lies across the river from the plant came under attack from artillery and drones that damaged an industrial facility, Dnipropetrovsk region governor Serhiy Lysak said.
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.
Kremlin-installed authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region are accelerating their push to relocate local residents, including families of workers at the plant, because of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, Kyiv officials said.
Military analysts say Ukraine may focus the 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.
Ukraine’s National Resistance Center, which says it runs and coordinates Ukrainian partisan movements on territory occupied by Russian forces, says Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia are shutting down schools, preparing buses and appointing officials to oversee the evacuation process.
They allege that the process is largely targeting children.
The International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him and Russia’s children’s ombudsperson of personal responsibility for the abductions of minors from Ukraine.
At the time, Ukraine’s human rights chief Dmytro Lubinets said that 16,226 Ukrainian children had been forcibly taken to Russia, citing data from Ukraine’s National Information Bureau.
After taking over at Zaporizhzhia, the Russians left the Ukrainian staff in place to keep the plant running but the exact number of workers currently at the plant isn’t known. The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, didn’t immediately reply to an AP query about staffing levels.
However, the IAEA said soon after Russian troops overran the plant after invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, 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.
Both sides continued their long-range drone attacks, meanwhile.
Ukraine targeted two Russian regions near the border, their governors claimed. One Ukrainian drone exploded overnight in a village in the Belgorod region, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the border, said regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. Residential buildings, a library, and post office were damaged, he said, without mentioning casualties.
Also, the head of the neighboring Kursk region reported that a Ukrainian drone was shot down near the provincial capital, also called Kursk.
Russian forces continued launching exploding drones at Ukrainian territory, according to Kyiv officials. The Ukrainian General Staff said that air defenses shot down six Russian drones, including three Iranian-made ones, over the previous 24 hours.
The Institute for the Study of War said that “Russian forces may be attempting to conduct an almost daily series of missile strikes in order to portray themselves as constraining potential upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.”
The Washington-based think tank added that “the diminished effectiveness of the strikes is likely not significantly constraining Ukrainian actions.”
The U.S. said Tuesday that it would provide $1.2 billion more in long-term military aid to Ukraine to further beef up its air defenses against Russian drones, rockets and surface-to-air missiles.
Yuras Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine