Power plant workers battling to keep Ukraine’s lights on
Arriving at a power station in central Ukraine, the air raid sirens begin to wail with an incessant, high-pitched sound.
“Down here,” an employee says, beckoning to a bomb shelter built during the Cold War. Below ground, about two dozen technicians and engineers sit on wooden benches, hoping that Russian missiles are not hurtling in their direction.
The Kremlin has launched more than a dozen waves of missile and drone attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since October in an attempt to freeze the country into submission.
The Times visited a sprawling power station that has been hit by Russian attacks on multiple occasions but can still produce some energy, albeit at a greatly reduced capacity. Security concerns mean the plant’s location or the full names of its employees are not being disclosed.
About half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been destroyed or occupied by Russia so far, leading to regular blackouts across the entire country, as well as planned power cuts to conserve energy. As winter continues, things are set to get worse.
“The demand for energy will rise the colder it gets, and we simply won’t be able to deal with it,” says Anatoliy, one of the technicians in the bomb shelter. “There will be more and longer power outages. We don’t know for how long yet, but this is unavoidable, unfortunately. We have basically used up all our reserves of equipment. We physically can’t produce any more energy.”
This winter has so far been unseasonably mild, but Ukraine’s good luck may not last. It was minus 12C in the northeastern Kharkiv region today and temperatures are set to drop to minus 16C on Saturday, when Ukrainian Orthodox Christians traditionally celebrate Christmas. Minus 25C, or colder, is not uncommon.
Once the air raid alert is over, this time without a strike on the facility, the damage that had been caused by previous Russian missile attacks can be seen. Amid the high-voltage power lines, vast impact craters are filled with debris. Transformers, which previously allowed the safe transfer of electricity to the national power grid, are mangled and charred. A powerful bomb had shattered every single window on one side of the power plant.
Ukraine’s energy chiefs have described Russia’s attack on the country’s grid as unprecedented. “No energy system in the world has ever gone through this,” Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, the head of Ukrenergo, the state energy company, said recently. “There is no thermal or hydropower plant [in the country] that has not been damaged.”
Yet despite the unrelenting Russian attacks, Ukraine has so far managed to avoid the apocalyptic scenario of a total energy collapse in big cities — largely due to the heroic efforts and sacrifice of thousands of power plant employees.
“We work days and nights to get things back up and running again after attacks,” says Serhii, his face etched with tiredness. “We sleep a few hours a night, wherever we can. Everyone is willing to work round the clock to keep the power on. There’s a limit, though, to what we can do without new equipment or spare parts.”
At least 35 energy workers have been killed by Russian strikes, including employees who have been targeted as they travelled to repair power lines and gas pipes. “They track them with drones,” Serhii adds.
President Putin, however, has claimed that Russia’s targeting of energy infrastructure is aimed at preventing western countries from being able to provide Kyiv with weapons. Staff at the power plant rubbish this claim: “How can bombing power plants stop the delivery of weapons to Ukraine?” Anatoliy says. “There’s no connection at all. Putin is simply trying to demoralise the population and intimidate the people who work at energy facilities.”
Putin announced on Thursday that Russian forces would implement a 36-hour ceasefire for Orthodox Christmas from noon local time today. The move has been dismissed by Ukraine and the US as a Kremlin propaganda stunt and a “cynical” ploy to buy time for the invading troops to regroup.
Air raid sirens were heard once more across Ukraine today just hours after the ceasefire was due to come into effect. Kyiv said that a fire station was shelled in the southern Kherson region and attacks continued in the eastern battleground town of Bakhmut, despite Russian claims that its forces were respecting the temporary truce.
At the power plant, the bomb shelters that employees rush to when the sirens sound were designed and built when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, as a precaution against conflict with the West. Instead, in a grim historical twist, they are now being used to save people from Moscow’s own missiles.
“When I first started work here I never in my worst nightmares thought I’d end up in a bomb shelter,” Anatoliy said.
Not everyone can seek the protection of shelters, however. Some workers who are responsible for overseeing the functioning of the power plants must stay at their posts to ensure safety. “They give us a helmet and body armour and we remain here,” said Ihor, as he stood in front of a bewildering array of computer screens, buttons and dials. He shrugged. “Someone has to do it, otherwise a fire could break out.”
Western countries, including Britain, have provided additional funding and technical equipment to help Ukraine get through the winter. But workers at the power plant say that what their country really needs is Western air defence systems and more weapons to drive back the invading Russian army. Otherwise, they argue, Putin’s forces will simply continue to destroy new equipment almost as quickly as it can be delivered.
In the latest announcement, Germany said it would soon supply about 40 Marder armoured personnel carriers to Ukraine, while France, the US and others are also sending comparable armoured vehicles, although the West has stopped short of battle tanks.
In addition to smaller anti-aircraft weapons, the US promised last month that it would provide Ukraine with powerful Patriot air defence systems. These are not expected to go into operation for several months, however.
By then the winter may be over, but the plant workers will still welcome the sophisticated missiles.
“If we have Patriot systems, we won’t need new transformers, because we will be able to stop the missiles,” Taras, a power plant manager, comments. “They will allow us to protect our energy facilities. And save people’s lives.”