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Missile strikes near a nuclear power plant in Ukraine leave residents on edge


What's it like to live near a nuclear power plant that's threatened by war? The southern Ukrainian city of Nikopol is located about a dozen miles across the river from Europe's largest nuclear plant, now occupied by Russian forces. As NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports, the city is a daily target for Russian missiles and a danger zone for a nuclear accident.

TAMARA KOROLKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Tamara Korolkova can see the Zaporizhzhia power plant outside the apartment building where she has lived for decades. She used to look at this panorama across the river with admiration. Now she has nightmares about the plant blowing up.

KOROLKOVA: (Through interpreter) All of us are just scared all the time. I'm old. I have diabetes. If anything happens, I'll only have time to lie on the floor and close my eyes.

KAKISSIS: Russia occupied this nuclear power plant back in March. But in the last week, Russian forces have used the area around the plant as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine. This has left many in the friendly, blue-collar city of Nikopol terrified about a nuclear accident. They're stocking up on potassium iodide pills to protect themselves from radiation poisoning.

NATALIA HORBOLIS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: City council official Natalia Horbolis hears from frightened residents every day.

HORBOLIS: (Through interpreter) The plant used to be run by professionals, people we knew. Now outsiders have taken it over, and we don't know what they are doing and what it will lead to.

KAKISSIS: Horbolis is showing us around Nikopol. Air raid sirens go off all the time with Russian missiles destroying homes every day. Eighteen-year-old Dima Malichenko was sleeping when a missile tore through his house.

Oh, that right there. Oh, you've got a - you've got cut on your leg.

DIMA MALICHENKO: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: He says falling rubble blocked his basement bomb shelter, so he ran outside and huddled under a tree.

MALICHENKO: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: His grandfather, Oleksandr Pylypenko, says about a dozen neighbors are now helping the teenager's family rebuild the house.

OLEKSANDR PYLYPENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: "I didn't expect that," he says, choking up. "But these days, such acts feel very Ukrainian."

OLEKSANDOR SAYUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: At Nikopol's sandbagged city hall, Mayor Oleksandor Sayuk explains that there have been very few fatalities. Residents heed air alarms, he says, but stress over a nuclear accident has been much harder to manage.

SAYUK: (Through interpreter) Our biggest challenge is that we can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow or even if there is going to be a tomorrow.

KAKISSIS: He's hoping the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency can intervene. Meanwhile, we stop at a partly collapsed apartment building that's being demolished and another apartment block where residents repair windows and doors. A missile hit the road outside, leaving a large crater. An elderly woman sweeps broken glass around it. Thirty-five-year-old Anna Yaroshek arrives to check her own apartment.

ANNA YAROSHEK: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: She says her own father helped clean up nuclear waste after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. He died after years of suffering from cancer.

YAROSHEK: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: "This radiation has no mercy," she says, "and no pills can really protect us." Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Nikopol, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.