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Europe's largest nuclear power plant is still occupied by Russian troops

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the third straight day today, there was hope that civilians in Ukraine might be permitted to escape cities besieged by Russian forces. But Ukraine says the Russian military once again opened fire on these humanitarian corridors, something that Russia denies. Russia also caught the world's attention last week when it attacked and took over Ukraine's and Europe's largest nuclear power plant, and there are now fears that Russia could set its sight on the country's three other active nuclear plants.

Earlier today, our colleague Tim Mak became the first reporter to visit the Rivne nuclear plant since the Russian invasion, and he spoke with the person in charge there. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So tell us a little more. What is the Rivne plant like?

MAK: So the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant is in northwestern Ukraine, close to the Belarusian border. As we drove into this town where it was located, past numerous checkpoints, you see these six enormous stacks that stand out on the horizon, and steam billows from a number of those stacks. It's quite a sight to see.

On the site of the plant, we spoke to Pavlo Pavlyshyn. He's the director general of the power station. Before the war, he spoke daily to the staff at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. That's the one controlled by Russians now. He said he's deeply worried about his colleagues, what they're going through and the implications for the safety of that plant.

PAVLO PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) You have to understand. Working under conditions when the guards are pointing guns at you is very stressful.

CHANG: So what did he tell you about the safety and security of the Rivne plant?

MAK: Well, he had a stark message. He said that due to the invasion, he can no longer guarantee it.

What can you do to assure the world that this nuclear site is safe?

PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) It's a very complicated question because I can assure the public that it's safe here in the peaceful time. We follow regulations. We have very good staff. We follow security protocols. But in the times of war, everything is uncertain because any military actions near nuclear power plants are very dangerous.

MAK: He said they're taking actions to secure the site and ensure its safety but couldn't go into details. He said that they were, quote, "ready for anything."

It's worth pointing out the Russian forces are right now far away, and there are right now no signs that the Russian or Belarusian forces are seeking to take the site. But the warning shows just what's at stake here.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I mean, given the fact that Russia has also taken control of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, which has been decommissioned, does he think that Russia is now deliberately targeting Ukraine's nuclear facilities at this point?

MAK: Yes, he does. During the Russian takeover of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site, a fire also broke out on a building on that site. Here's what Pavlyshyn said about those attacks.

PAVLYSHYN: (Through interpreter) It's very dangerous in any country and Ukraine as well. It must be called nuclear terrorism. We cannot call it any other way.

MAK: He said the Ukrainian military would fight off any attempt to take the site he's in charge of. And what this raises is the prospect of another fierce firefight around a nuclear plant, which is, of course, really dangerous.

CHANG: God, this is terrifying. Well, Tim, I just want to step back for a moment because you have been in Ukraine for several days now. Can you just give us an overall snapshot of what you have been seeing personally?

MAK: Well, you know, I've been witnessing and the NPR team on the ground here in Ukraine has been witnessing this growing humanitarian crisis. The U.N. says that now more than 1.7 million Ukrainians have left the country, and that number is growing every day. For millions more that remain inside this country, whether they're internally displaced or they remain where they originally were living, the sounds of air raid sirens and explosions have become this terrifying daily reality.

CHANG: That is NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak in western Ukraine. Thank you so much, Tim, and stay safe.

MAK: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.