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At energy plant bombed by Russia, Ukrainian workers try to keep the power on

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Little more than rusty, melted metal and piles of ash are left in a control room in this sprawling electric generating station that Russia attacked last month — destroying equipment and igniting a massive fire that shut down the entire plant indefinitely.

Ukraine’s electric grid is such a high-value target for Russian missile strikes that revealing the name or location of this facility, run by DTEK, the country’s largest private energy producer, could put the plant and its employees at risk by allowing Russian forces to assess the extent of damage to the facility to plan future strikes, DTEK and Energy Ministry officials said.

Last month’s strikes, which simultaneously hit numerous energy infrastructure sites across Ukraine, obliterated 80 percent of capacity at DTEK’s thermal power plants. Even with the right supplies, it could take many months if not longer to fix the damage.

Such attacks, which are deeply debilitating to Ukraine’s already war-ravaged economy, are nearly impossible to repel because Ukraine lacks adequate air defenses. The strikes also show Russia is unrelenting in the brutal pursuit of its war aims, readying further ground offensives but also able to rely on a seemingly robust supply of missiles and explosive drones to strike targets far from the front lines.

The difficulty defending against the attacks also poses challenges to rebuilding the energy facilities, which are key to keeping the nation’s lights on and its businesses running, because they can always be hit again — creating a sense of exhaustion and futility.

“The fact is that we missed several missiles and drones and have such damage — meaning that definitely we don’t have enough air defense,” DTEK’s chief executive, Maksym Timchenko, said in an interview at the plant on Tuesday. “We invest a lot of effort, a lot of money and time to restore it. But it can be destroyed … after one attack.”

Russia’s recent strikes, which came after the coldest days of winter had passed, may reflect an effort by the Kremlin to exploit Ukraine’s vulnerabilities. Russia knows, Timchenko added, that “we are weaker in air defense now than even four months ago.”

Russia knows the locations of DTEK’s six thermal power plants operating in Ukrainian-controlled territory but not the extent of damage caused by its strikes, DTEK officials said. Revealing any details about a particular plant could result in it being targeted sooner, according to DTEK officials, who arranged a visit for journalists on the condition that the location and other identifying information about the facility not be published.

Ukraine is urgently awaiting $60 billion in aid from the United States, which congressional Republicans have blocked for months. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has so far refused to put the package to a vote, even after personal pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Improved air defenses, including the U.S.-designed Patriot systems that Washington and other NATO allies provided last year, helped repel many Russian attacks, but officials in Kyiv say stocks of ammunition are dwindling.

As Washington dawdles, Russia’s relentless strikes have severely strained Ukraine’s electrical grid. In many areas, power has been cut, leaving residents — including in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city — relying on food handouts. Officials warn the strikes could set off environmental disaster.

No one was killed during last month’s attack on this facility, when about 10 missiles struck in the early morning. That was in part because DTEK — anticipating such strikes — set up passive protections such as sandbags, which shielded essential staff from shrapnel. Most workers also ran to an underground shelter to seek refuge.

Russia has repeatedly struck Ukraine’s power grid, targeting DTEK’s thermal power plants in more than 160 attacks since February 2022. More than 40 of those strikes occurred in the recent heating season.

After a wave of strikes last winter, which caused major power outages nationwide during the coldest months of the year, DTEK restored its power units — only to have most destroyed again.

DTEK has also used almost all of its backup equipment to repair damage after other Russian strikes, making the current repair efforts even more complicated.

The parts needed to repair the burned-out control room at this facility can only be obtained from outside Ukraine, Timchenko said. Other necessary equipment potentially can be salvaged from decommissioned plants in Europe.

While searching for quick fixes for its existing facilities, DTEK is also seeking investment to expand its green energy projects, including wind farms, which would be harder for Russia to damage because the infrastructure is spread out.

Such projects would also be harder for Russia to target than older power plants, which were designed in the Soviet era, meaning Moscow probably still has blueprints of the facilities. But until funding is secured for more green projects, Ukraine must rely largely on plants that run on fossil fuels.

As much as DTEK needs help repairing damage, the company also urgently needs commercial funding for the green projects and for war insurance.

“That we don’t feel 100 percent protected should not stop us from doing what we’re doing,” Timchenko said.

Even amid the constant risk of more strikes, employees are already cleaning and repairing what they can. On Tuesday, dozens of staff in blue and gray uniforms sifted through debris, salvaging some pieces and hauling the rest to the trash.

The facility still reeks of smoke, and piles of stray equipment are scattered about. “You can never expect it [to look] like this,” said Sergii Batechko, a DTEK manager who was visiting the plant with the chief executive. “We never expected war.”

Oleksandr, 51, who has worked at the plant for 27 years, was home when the strikes hit but rushed to his longtime workplace to help evacuate staff and shut off critical equipment.

Like other employees, Oleksandr spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name to avoid identifying the location of the factory.

Not all employees can take cover underground during attacks, Oleksandr said. Some must maintain the plant’s operations. Instead, they rushed to windowless staff locker rooms, hoping the shock wave would not reach them.

Inside one such control room, which was not damaged in the strike, the clock on the wall still read 5:49 a.m. — the time the missiles hit. A black and white cat covered in soot wove through the legs of workers and journalists — a survivor of the fire that broke out in the next control room down the hall. Oleksandr said he knew the room was ablaze but entered anyway — taking a deep breath and then opening the door to the smoke-filled room — so that he could shut off the oil pumps before the controls were destroyed.

When he opened the door, the office cat, named Murka, escaped.

Employees grabbed any fire extinguishers they could find, using dozens to try to quell the flames as they waited for firefighters to arrive. The fire eventually caused the ceiling to collapse. On Tuesday, workers from different departments, dispatched to aid in repairs, toiled away under the open sky. On part of the roof that still remains, a net installed to catch incoming drones was visible.

Oleksandr has witnessed other strikes on the facility, including one in late 2022 when several missiles hit while he was working in the main control room. Like before, he said, workers will try to get the plant back up and running, but they are exhausted knowing it might just be another temporary patch.

“People are working to repair it but we don’t have the guarantee the station will be safe,” Oleksandr said. “We need to know we are not repairing it for nothing.”

As Timchenko walked through the badly damaged facility on his first visit since the strikes last month, workers explained that when sirens come on, they grab flak jackets and helmets and try to hide from the windows. Others told him that there is so little electricity available now that they cannot deploy multiple cranes to clear the debris, which is slowing down the cleanup.

In the control room where the clock stopped, Timchenko spoke to Yevhen, 39, who has worked at the plant for 17 years and helped guide firefighters to the generator room after last month’s attack.

“How are you feeling here? Are you feeling safe?” Timchenko asked.

“Sort of,” Yevhen replied.

“Thank you for coming to work after major events like this,” Timchenko told him and his colleagues. “It’s hard to come up with words. You are the real front protecting Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Thank you for risking your lives.”

Employees are aware that every day they come to work could mean living through another strike — or never returning home.

“My prediction is bleak,” Oleksandr said. “Without international support, we will not survive.”

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