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How Ukraine ended up with one of the world's largest nuclear power plants

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant has been occupied by Russian forces since March. There are concerns about the safety and security of Europe's largest nuclear power plant, where this weekend Ukraine accused Russia of kidnapping the plant's director. But how did Ukraine end up with one of the world's largest nuclear power plants? NPR's Julian Hayda has this report.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: To get a sense of Ukraine's nuclear history, you first have to go back to the Soviet Union's nuclear promise.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking non-English language).

HAYDA: Every society needs to grow up like a mature man. And for that, he needs energy - nuclear energy.

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HAYDA: The world's first nuclear power plant was built near Moscow in 1951. That was central to the Soviet Union's Cold War strategy.

OLEKSANDR SUKHODOLIA: (Through interpreter) Nuclear energy is just a byproduct of making nuclear weapons.

HAYDA: That's Oleksandr Sukhodolia, a Ukrainian energy policy expert. The Soviet Union cranked up production of nuclear weapons for military dominance, stationing warheads in border regions like Ukraine. Energy could also be cheaply exported to prop up industry in the Soviet Union's communist neighbors, like Poland and Czechoslovakia. At first, it went pretty well.

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HAYDA: Videos show an idyllic life near Ukraine's new power plants. Sukhodolia says the air was cleaner; the jobs were easier. By the 1980s, a fifth of Ukraine's energy was nuclear. Now it's almost two-thirds. But because nuclear was first and foremost a defensive technology for the Soviet Union, Ukrainians didn't have much say over it.

DAVID MARPLES: Ukrainians were not trusted to run it themselves. Everything had to be done from Russia.

HAYDA: David Marples is a professor of history at the University of Alberta and author of "Nuclear Power In The USSR." He says that status quo worked until disaster.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Speaking non-English language).

HAYDA: In April of 1986, reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, just a short drive north of Kyiv, exploded.

MARPLES: Before Chernobyl, there was no real concept of a nuclear accident. It was thought to be an infallible industry.

HAYDA: It wasn't the first nuclear meltdown in the USSR, but others had been kept secret. And this one was so big, the world began to notice. A radioactive cloud blew over Europe, and thousands of people lost their homes.

MARPLES: I think Chernobyl was really the start of everything.

YURIY SAMOILENKO: (Through interpreter) Environmental scientists were the first people to convince Ukrainians that the Soviet Union was built on lies.

HAYDA: That's Yuriy Samoilenko, the chief environmental inspector at Kyiv's city hall at the time. As a Ukrainian, Samoilenko had wondered why people like him weren't ever in decision-making positions. But as a good communist, he'd never publicly questioned authority.

SAMOILENKO: (Through interpreter) This sense of injustice kept building and building in me.

HAYDA: Samoilenko says he had heard about activists who thought Ukraine should be independent from the Soviet Union. Like many, he hadn't really taken them seriously. But after Chernobyl, he reached out.

SAMOILENKO: (Through interpreter) I needed to know why this was happening, not just what.

HAYDA: He and other scientists created a group called Green World to investigate the Chernobyl meltdown. And while on the surface they looked like any other youth environmental movement - not at all a threat to the single-party state - behind closed doors, they'd host Ukrainian nationalists to talk about the relationship between the environment and social inequality - what we might call today environmental justice. Ukrainian independence, Samoilenko and his colleagues were convinced, would have prevented Chernobyl. If only Ukrainians had democratic control over infrastructure in their own neighborhoods.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: And in 1991, they got their wish. The Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukrainians celebrated their independence. Samoilenko was elected to Parliament to oppose the Communists on an environmental platform. Ukrainians were finally in charge of their own nuclear industry - 12 huge nuclear reactors. Three more reactors were still under construction. And they'd also inherited the world's third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. But what might have been Ukraine's biggest asset quickly became a liability. It was expensive and dangerous to maintain so many power plants and so many nuclear weapons. So Ukraine asked for help.

Again, here's historian David Marples.

MARPLES: In the early 1990s, the West did not trust Ukraine. We're not going to give any funds to Ukraine until they get rid of these weapons.

HAYDA: Russia, the U.S. and U.K. hatched a deal for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. In exchange, they'd defend Ukraine's borders. And to sweeten the deal, Ukraine would get some much needed cash to reform its nuclear energy sector.

SAMOILENKO: (Through interpreter) We can do it on new technology, not like the old technology we used to make the weapons with.

HAYDA: Yuriy Samoilenko believes in the benefits of nuclear energy. Polls show that most Ukrainians do. And over the years, as the country became independent, it distanced its nuclear program from Russia. Ukraine's nuclear power plants switched from Russian fuel to American fuel. They made plans to rebuild their reactors with America's Westinghouse, not Russian contractors. But Russia's invasions in 2014 and this year broke the defense deal Ukraine had made in return for giving up the nuclear weapons.

Here's David Marples again.

MARPLES: If Ukraine had nuclear weapons, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine. That's just a simple fact.

HAYDA: Some Ukrainians have called on their country to renew its nuclear weapons program. For now, Ukraine has invested in new power lines to export energy to the EU to bring much needed billions into Ukraine's wartime economy. But Anna Ackerman from the Ukrainian environmental group Eco Action says nuclear power can't be Ukraine's golden goose. The fight for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant highlights just one of those dangers. Also, many of the plants are reaching the end of their life expectancy.

ANNA ACKERMAN: It's not cheap. We just got it for free from the Soviet Union. But we're also not willing to pay for the phasing out of the nuclear units, which we will have to do sooner or later.

HAYDA: Ackerman says the war and rising energy prices will mean Ukrainians are looking even more locally for their energy sources, from solar panels to backyard batteries.

ACKERMAN: We are entering the new era when Ukrainians want this autonomy. It's a striking difference with nuclear power plants.

HAYDA: Unlike the nuclear legacy left by the Soviet Union, Ackerman believes Ukrainians can find energy independence again, only this time, even closer to their backyards.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda