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Backup power lines to Ukrainian power plant are now restored, but other issues remain

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Yesterday, workers restored the last of three backup power lines to the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Just days before, all three lines had been disconnected, in part due to shelling. Concerns about a nuclear disaster there have loomed for months.

NPR's Kat Lonsdorf is in Kyiv, and she has been closely tracking what's happening there. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: OK. So power lines are connected again. And that sounds like good news, right?

LONSDORF: Yeah, definitely. Yes, definitely good news. It's a little complicated, but the power lines that are connected now are the ones that feed energy into the plant, which is great because it means critical safety equipment there has power. So the pumps that keep the water moving through the reactors to cool them can keep pumping. There are still four other lines that are damaged and not working. Those are the ones that feed the power out of the plant onto the grid.

I talked to the head of Ukraine's atomic energy company. His name is Petro Kotin. We had a long conversation this morning. He's not at the plant. He's here in Kyiv, but he talks to the general manager there at the plant every day. And he told me that they're trying to restore those lines as quickly as they can, but it's just going to take some time.

SUMMERS: And in those conversations that he's having every day, what is he hearing about the conditions for the plant's Ukrainian workers?

LONSDORF: Yeah, that part is pretty heartbreaking. So the plant has been under Russian occupation since March, and it's hard for Petro Kotin to get a real sense of what's happening there because he says the calls he's allowed to have with the management there are only audio, no video. So he doesn't really know if they're speaking freely. But he told me he can just hear it in their voices.

PETRO KOTIN: And I can see by evaluating their voices, the people are very exhausted.

LONSDORF: And he told me he thinks they're on the edge of what he calls psychological disaster. He told me he knows already that one of his workers recently died after being severely beaten by Russians. And he says some 200 of his workers have been tortured at various times.

SUMMERS: Wow. OK. So on Sunday, operators shut down the final reactor at the plant. It is no longer producing electricity. What did he tell you about that? Are there plans to restart it?

LONSDORF: Yeah. Kotin was very clear about this with me. He said he would not restart any of the reactors even if it became technically possible until Russia leaves the plant. It's just safer this way, and it's also better for those workers because it takes less staff to operate the plant like this and takes maybe at least a little bit of stress off of them.

SUMMERS: OK. And what does that mean for energy in the country?

LONSDORF: Well, it's not great. Zaporizhzhia is huge. It's the biggest nuclear power plant in Ukraine but also in all of Europe. And, you know, it's big enough that if all of its reactors are running, it could technically provide almost all the power this country needs. With it off, Ukraine is having to use more coal, and a lot of the coal plants are in the east where all of the heavy fighting is happening. For now, Ukraine is OK because not as much power is being used with people fleeing from the war and with it being, you know, late summer. It's not winter. But as more people come back, it will likely become a problem.

SUMMERS: So, Kat, what happens from here?

LONSDORF: Yeah, that's really the golden question, Juana. Like you said, shelling and fighting is still continuing near the plant. But Kotin, he said he's hopeful that at least a demilitarized zone could be set up soon. Or what he hopes for the most is that the Russians will realize there just isn't really anything for them there at the plant and they'll just leave.

KOTIN: My personal feeling is that this situation will be resolved soon.

LONSDORF: Kotin says he really hopes he'll be able to see his workers again in person sometime soon. And I will say that hope that he's saying is echoing what a lot of Ukrainians are feeling here right now after this massive win to the east just in the last few days. There's this real renewed sense of possibility.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Kyiv. Thank you so much.

LONSDORF: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.