‘Immediate risk’ of Putin’s nuclear power plant plot, says Ukraine Energy CEO arguing for no-fly zone
For CEO Maxim Timchenko, the war began on February 22 when shells exploded at a coal-fired power plant owned by DTEK in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, knocking it offline and setting fires. The attack was more than just a continuation of hostilities that had been simmering since 2014, it was a prelude.
DTEK, owned by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s investment company, is Ukraine’s largest non-nuclear electricity producer. Before the war, its eight fossil fuel power plants and renewable energy projects supplied around 30% of Ukraine’s electricity. These power plants became more important than ever after Putin’s forces attacked and seized the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear complexes. In better times, Ukraine got 60% of its electricity from nuclear; but nearly half of its reactors are now offline.
Timchenko praises DTEK’s 60,000 employees, especially the electrical engineers who venture to repair damage from Russian attacks, only to see their repairs destroyed the next day. So far, five of DTEK’s workers have died in attacks. DTEK is stockpiling coal as quickly as possible, although one plant, he says, will run out of fuel in less than two weeks because Russian attacks have cut the railway lines.
A more immediate concern, he says, is the security of nuclear sites. Zaporizhzhia is off the grid and uses emergency power to run pumps that continuously add water to containment pools that contain spent uranium fuel rods. Although this atomic fuel is exhausted, it remains extremely dangerous. Timchenko insisted on Friday that emergency generators could run out of fuel in less than a week, causing pumps to shut down and cooling ponds to dry up. At that time, the nuclear material could heat up to thousands of degrees, set Zaporizhzhia on fire and spit radioactive particles into the sky.
It’s a possibility almost too horrifying to even think about. But Timchenko does, and he begs NATO countries to impose at least a partial no-fly zone covering the air above nuclear power plants and civilian refugee corridors. “My message to the world,” he says, “is to please shelter the sky above the power plants. And make an absolute embargo” on Russian oil and gas. “I am grateful to the United States for their decision on Russian oil,” says Timchenko. “But people should realize that all revenue from the sale of oil is converted into bullets to kill Ukrainians.”
But wouldn’t a no-fly zone, with NATO jets intercepting Russian sorties, lead directly to World War III? “People think about the risk that World War III could start, but it’s a distant risk,” Timchenko said in an hour-long Zoom call. “An immediate risk is the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe”, and a risk as cold as the collapse of Chernobyl in 1986.
Timchenko is not the only prominent Ukrainian warning that Putin was already stockpiling corpses for an orchestrated “false flag” attack on nuclear power plants that could lead to a nuclear disaster.
Russian officials reportedly said on Saturday that specialists from the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom had been dispatched to the two plants to ensure site security.
Timchenko doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Putin timed his invasion order for the early hours of February 24 – just after Ukraine’s power grid operators launched a major, long-planned test, which involved shutting down interconnection with the Russian network and to exploit Ukraine as an electric island. Timchenko says the timing was a strategic aid for Putin – allowing him to attack Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure without any risk of disruption from the Russian side.
Before the war, Ukrainian grid operators tried to disconnect from Russia because they wanted to establish a new link with the European grid. Timchenko expects the political and technical prerequisites to be finalized soon. Getting an extra 2 gigawatts of electricity in Europe would help ease the pressure on Ukraine (which has an average demand of 12 GW) and on DTEK.
Timchenko does not want to believe that Russia attacked nuclear power plants. “It’s not even terrorism. It is something out of the mind.
It’s heartbreaking for Timchenko, 47, who grew up in the eastern region of Donbass, excelled at the Donetsk State Academy of Management, the University of Manchester and the London Business School. In 1999, he started at PricewaterhouseCoopers, then joined Rinat Akhmetov’s System Capital Management (SCM) conglomerate. In 2005, SCM created DTEK; Timchenko has been CEO since then. He has invested heavily in coal mining, gas production and wind turbines. After Putin’s initial invasion in 2014, he moved the DTEK’s headquarters west to Kyiv. Last year, the company generated about $300 million in Ebitda on about $1.8 billion in revenue.
The war weighs heavily on capital-intensive balance sheets. In 2015, DTEK had to restructure its debt, which it did again last year, and may have to do so again, given that since the start of the war, DTEK’s electricity customers have stopped sending payments. Timchenko plans some forbearance on $1.7 billion in debt and is absolutely confident that Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, will be able to recapitalize his businesses, which also include metal mining, l real estate, insurance, media, railways and agriculture. As Akhmetov told Forbes last week, “We’re going to start rebuilding the country to make it happier and more prosperous. For my part, I will spare no expense or effort to achieve this goal.”
Timchenko says that while NATO is not yet ready to close the skies over even Ukrainian nuclear power plants and humanitarian corridors, he hopes Western powers will at least provide money to help keep the lights and lit heat – the operating costs of Ukrainian power plants and the network collectively amount to $250 million per month. Not only are generators like DTEK no longer being paid, but they will face heavy repair and rebuilding bills once the war is over.
It hurts Timchenko that 20% of Kiev and 30% of Mariupol are without electricity. He calls the continued shelling and shelling of Mariupol “genocide” and wonders if Putin intends to replicate Hitler’s 1941 siege of Leningrad. Half a million people have had no electricity or heating for a week. “It kills us not to be able to help these people.”
He and his management team are still in Ukraine, near the western border. They received Starlink satellite internet receivers from SpaceX, but have not yet needed to use them. He sets an example by staying focused, controlling his emotions, keeping calm. For now. “People should realize that this is not just a war against Ukraine. This is war against the whole civilized world.
He does not want to believe that Russia has ever attacked nuclear power plants. “It’s not even terrorism. It is something out of the mind.