Courage is Contagious: Activists Work to Protect Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy (Sts. Francis and Therese CW) recounts her journey to Ukraine on behalf of the Zaporizhzhia Protection Project, an innovative peace initiative that seeks to engage unarmed civilians in the establishment of a no-fire zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

This article originally appeared in the June-July issue of The Catholic Radical, the newsletter of Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker.

I slept poorly the night before my departure to Ukraine. That evening, I realized what I had forgotten to pack: an umbrella, a second pair of shoes, vitamins, and books. Always books. Kathy Kelly, a veteran traveler to war zones, had advised ascertaining my blood type, “in case something happens.” But the nurse at my health clinic was clueless, so at 9 p.m. I found myself frantically perusing medical records on MyChart.

“Go to bed,” my husband Scott called from the back bedroom.

It was well after 11:00 p.m. before I finally lay down. An irritating nasal drip, along with a raging bout of fear and self-doubt, kept me awake. Why vault myself into a distant, troubled country? I wondered. Why not stay home and wallow in the love of grandchildren who earlier that evening clasped my waist with such uninhibited affection when we said our farewells? Why this persistent restlessness?

Several weeks earlier, I had decided to join a small, exploratory team traveling to Ukraine on behalf of the Zaporizhzhia Protection Project, an innovative peace initiative that seeks to engage unarmed civilians in the establishment of a no-fire zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

Located on the southern bank of the Dnipro River, the plant sits on the war’s frontline. Russian forces seized the facility on March 5, 2022, installed troops and weaponry there, and in October, declared the southern region of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast (district) part of the Russian Federation. The plant’s six nuclear reactors are currently shutdown; the big worry is the waste stored on site – some 50 tons of plutonium, according to Russian physicist and engineer Oleg Bodrov, an amount that can generate 50,000 times the radioactive contamination produced by the atomic bomb the US dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. In the past year, the ZNPP has endured heavy shelling with each side accusing the other. The attacks, which have damaged vital power lines needed to energize the cooling system and prevent nuclear meltdown, prompted Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to negotiate access for rotating teams of IAEA inspectors to monitor the ZNPP.

“We are living on borrowed time when it comes to nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant,” he said after a recent visit to the ZNPP. “Unless, we take action to protect the plant, our luck will run out sooner or later with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment.”

Grossi has yet to realize a de-militarized zone around the facility. His efforts, however, captured the attention of Dr. John Reuwer, a retired Emergency Room physician and board member of the international organization World Beyond War. John, who has years of experience serving on domestic and international peace teams, marveled at what he called the “miracle” of the IAEA monitors. With no training in unarmed civilian protection (UCP), they were working unarmed in a war zone to protect their fellow human beings. He wondered if cohorts of volunteers, well-trained in UCP could assist in the effort.

Since January, the Zaporizhzhia Protection Project (ZPP) has been training some twenty Americans and internationals in the skills of UCP. In early April, John, Peter Lumsdaine, a peace advocate from Washington state, Charles Johnson of Chicago Peace Action, and I traveled to Ukraine on the project’s behalf. Our mission? To meet with Ukrainians living in proximity to the nuclear power plant and hear their views on non-military methods for preventing disaster.

I was nervous about the trip. The newspapers kept reporting of an impending spring offensive, and our proposed itinerary took us into Marhanets, a town located across the Dnipro River from the ZNPP and 10 kilometers from the war’s frontline.

“I may not travel beyond Kyiv,” I told my colleagues.

During the week I spent in Ukraine with the ZPP team, we interviewed, formally and informally, more than twenty Ukrainians–faith leaders, journalists, a soldier, civil servants, townspeople who stayed in Marhanets despite its frequent shelling, and residents who fled a city after Russian tanks rolled through. For much of a morning, an earnest Protestant pastor in Dnipro toured us through his native city pointing out the Menorah Center, the biggest Jewish cultural center in Europe, the greenways and new amusement park along the riverfront, and the apartment building cut in half by a Russian missile on an afternoon in January. As a Christian, the pastor knew he must forgive the Russians, but he did not trust them. Nonetheless, he was touched that people from far away were concerned about the safety of Ukrainians living within the vicinity of the ZNPP. Ukrainians had never considered the plant dangerous, until now, he said. “Somebody must be thinking about this. If the plant is bombed, it will be a big tragedy.”

In Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city located 80 miles from the power plant, we conducted hours of back-to-back interviews in a hotel Ukrainian and American movie stars once frequented. Over dinner, we listened to the story of our translator Alexandr Pavlov, a man who embodies this war’s horrible divisions. Born in Ukraine, he spent more than twenty years studying and working in Russia, his parents’ homeland. “The Russians are good people; they have a beautiful culture,” he said. After Russia invaded, Alexandr sided with Ukraine, even though he knew there are no innocents in this war. He has reported from the front lines as penance, he said, for what Russia, his cultural homeland, has done.

During our first days in Kyiv, the fear I felt so acutely in Worcester diminished. The neighborhood of our hotel, with its bustling coffee shops and shiny Apple store, gave little evidence of the war. (John and Charles would observe its devastation on their return trip.) Or perhaps my fear quieted because of time spent with Ukrainian pacifist Yuri Sheliazhenko, and K and S, a young couple interested in nonviolence. Together, the three represented Kyiv’s tiny peace movement. They had lived through a hard winter of shelling and black-outs, and still they carried on. Courage is contagious.

I had heard that with the exception of the poor and elderly, most women and children fled Maharnets. “And that’s one reason why I am afraid to go there,” I told Yuri.

Ukrainian peace activists K, S, and Yuri Sheliazhenko in Kyiv

“But there are women living in Marhanets!” he said. Several facilitated our awkward meeting with Maharnets young deputy mayor. Of course the town had a safety plan in the event of nuclear accident, he said, but to avoid panic, they were not going to broadcast it on every lamp post. Maharnets’ protocol included the distribution of potassium iodide to every resident, an evacuation route with busses at the ready, and a siren, distinct from the one used for shelling, that would wail incessantly. Initially bristly, the deputy mayor became more curious as our conversation progressed. Did we have a step-by-step plan for improving the town’s safety, he wanted to know. During the team’s first day in Marhanets, G., our driver, and Natalya, our translator, showed us the Palace of Culture, the soccer stadium, the town schools, and old Ostrovsky Park. Even in its ghostly state, the place was beautiful. I could easily imagine teens loitering near the open-air dance floor, or young families enjoying the ice cream stand beside the summer stage. Chestnut trees were just beginning to bloom. In the spring, their blossoms are as big as candles, Natalya told me. “Chestnut trees, grapes, apricot trees, we have everything in Maharnets,” G said.

In 1987, radioactive contamination from a meltdown at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Chernobyl generated an exclusionary zone of one thousand square miles, an area that remains uninhabitable for humans. An accident at the ZNPP could result in a zone six times larger. Seen from the lens of Google Earth, such a swath of destruction might appear as a dark patch on the landscape. Touch down into that place and the preciousness and variety of the loss become apparent. Gone, of course, would be the humans with their courage and fears, the sooty cities and towns, the fish in the Dnipro River, the chestnut blossoms, the grape vineyards, and the apricot trees. All are worth preserving.

As of this writing the ZPP, a non-partisan endeavor, is preparing to send an exploratory team to Russian-controlled areas to hear from people there on ways to protect the plant. For more info, see:


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