On Saturday, 5 March, I was arrested in Zaporizhzhia, in south-east Ukraine, for trying to get close to a nuclear power plant that had just been shelled by Vladimir Putin’s invading army.
Until 1921 Zaporizhzhia was called Alexandrovsk, after a fortress built by Catherine the Great to defend the Russian Empire against Crimean Tatar invasions. Now it’s the Russians who are invading. I arrived in the city on Friday evening, hours after the unprecedented bombing of the atomic station thirty miles outside the city – the largest in Europe, it produces 20 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity. As Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has pointed out, it’s a fundamental principle of the Geneva Conventions that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe even in wartime.
The centre of town was emptied out. Many of the inhabitants had packed up and headed west. Most of the shops were shuttered and the entrance of the Intourist Hotel on Sobornyi Prospekt was padlocked. As snow and dusk fell on the banks of the Dnieper, the streets were deserted apart from a few figures hurrying to get home before curfew. The Ukrainian military says it will shoot on sight anyone outside between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., on the grounds that people with nowhere to go must be Russian diversanti or special ops. I ended up at a hostel that had just become emergency accommodation for refugees fleeing the destruction of Mariupol.
Over supper I asked one of them, a merchant seaman called Igor Kolobny, whose family had escaped from their ruined home that morning, if he was nervous about resettling in what was potentially a nuclear fall-out zone. He said he’d been driving for ten hours and didn’t have much information. Nobody did: the details of what had happened at the power station in the early hours of Friday morning were vague.
I spoke the following day to Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, the state-controlled company that operates all six of Ukraine’s nuclear power stations. He told me that about a hundred Russian units with heavy weapons broke through a checkpoint at 1:42 a.m. In the face of resistance from Ukraine’s National Guard and local residents, the Russian convoy began to shell the nuclear plant until about 4:30 a.m. when the Russians finally took control of it. Three people were killed and several dozen wounded. The plant’s night shift were taken prisoner and a five-storey training centre next to the six reactors was ablaze.
President Zelensky denounced the attack, the first time that an active atomic facility has been targeted. He evoked the Chernobyl disaster. The previous week, radiation levels rose at Chernobyl as Russian forces took over the site. Their vehicles churned up radioactive dust around the remains of the stricken reactor.
The bombardment at Zaporizhzhia poses a different threat. The reactor design is relatively modern – built in 1984, twelve years after Chernobyl – with six VVER-1000 pressurised water reactor units housed inside a steel-reinforced concrete containment building that can withstand such extreme external events as being hit by an aircraft, an earthquake or an explosion. In any case, unlike Chernobyl, pressurised water reactors don’t have graphite cores that can catch fire. By the time I arrived in Zaporizhzhia, the Russian occupiers had reported that there was no damage to any of the six reactors, cooling equipment or spent nuclear fuel, and radiation levels were normal.
The bad news, Kotin told me, was that we had only the Russians’ word for that. ‘We cannot say that everything is under control. We cannot say that the threat of a nuclear disaster does not exist. We have no way of knowing because we no longer control the safety systems at the plant. Our systems of control have been switched off by the Russians so we simply do not know what the radiation levels are. All the information we are getting is from non-official sources.’ On 8 March, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that the Russians had cut off electricity and data transmission from Chernobyl after seizing the plant on the first day of the invasion.
The Energoatom boss, who used to be the general manager at Zaporizhzhia, described the attack as ‘an act of nuclear terrorism. It’s the first time in the whole world, in the whole history of mankind, that somebody has shelled a nuclear power plant. So Putin, who likes to talk about history, is already a part of history now himself, as a result of committing this huge crime.’
The pianist and composer Alexander Tsfasman was born in Alexandrovsk in 1906. I was listening to his Fantasy on Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ when I went to the headquarters of the Zaporizhzhia regional police to get permission to visit the nuclear plant, and by the time I met Oleh, who’d offered to drive me there, my playlist had got to Tsfasman’s ‘Evening on the River’. Over coffee, Oleh pulled out a tourist map and a red pen and showed me the various checkpoints on the road south towards Vasilivka. He circled one particular hazard and marked it with a red arrow. My first big mistake was to ask Oleh to take a picture of the annotated map and WhatsApp it to me. My second mistake, later in the day, was to take photographs of my own of some Ukrainian soldiers at the frontline near the power station. Behind them the charred walls of the training centre were dimly visible.
Back in the centre of Zaporizhzhia, taking more photographs, I had jumped onto a low wall to get a better view when three police officers in blue uniforms came round the corner brandishing their guns. ‘Hands up,’ one of them said. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Taking a photograph of this wall,’ I replied. He asked to see my ID and phone. He took my phone while the other two put my hands behind my back and bundled me into a waiting police car that took us to the Bazanas Street police station, heavily fortified with sandbags and concrete slabs, in downtown Zaporizhzhia.
I was led into a first-floor room where a more senior officer, sitting behind a large desk, went through my phone. ‘Where are you from?’ he kept asking. ‘England,’ I kept saying. He shook his head. ‘You are not English. You are a Russian spy.’
‘Do I look like a Russian spy?’
He grimaced slightly and said: ‘James Bond Scotland Yard.’
After a while another policeman came in and demanded to see my passport, press card and driving licence. ‘You are not a journalist, you are a Russian spy,’ he said after a cursory inspection.
The other man looked up. ‘Do you want some vodka?’ he asked with a smile.
I said I didn’t, in part because it was only four o’clock in the afternoon, and in part because I suspected it might be a trap, as if no Russian, not even a diversant, could resist a swig at any time of the day.
By now there were half a dozen uniformed police in the room, all of them with rifles strapped to their chests, one waving a revolver in my face whenever he asked a question. He asked me what I thought of Putin. My honest reply seemed to go down well. He also checked my knowledge of British history, though even a Russian spy might have got some of the answers right: ‘Who was the prime minister before Jones?’ he asked, waving the revolver above his head to mime Boris Johnson’s hair.
Eventually two SBU officers came in. They were professional and courteous, and even had some conversational English. The senior SBU officer, whom the others called Sasha, asked me to go over my story again while he went through my phone, zooming in on some of the photos. Every now and then he would pick up his own phone to make a call, and there would be a brief conversation in which the phrase ‘Russky diversant’ could always be heard.
The photographs of soldiers and the Vasilivka map seemed to worry the SBU officer most. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, pointing at the red arrow. ‘A mistake,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘a BIG mistake.’
‘If you are a journalist,’ he asked, putting the phone down, ‘where are your articles?’
‘Well, I don’t carry them around in a suitcase.’ He didn’t laugh. They were brave men doing a difficult job, I told myself, and not wrong to be so vigilant in hunting down Russian spies. ‘I also write books,’ I volunteered.
‘Ah, pisatel.’ He made the Russian word sound like ‘piss-artist’ in English. A Google search turned up a Wikipedia page. Sasha rang the boss. ‘Da, da,’ he said. ‘On journalistom, yest Vikipidia.’
On the way back to the hostel, I walked past the wall I had been photographing when I was taken into custody. It faces a courtyard on Sobornyi Prospekt, on the side of the house where Tsfasman was born, on which the street artist Olexander Korban recently painted a mural of the composer.