‘The Hole’: Gruesome Accounts of Russian Occupation Emerge From Ukrainian Nuclear Plant
Hooded and handcuffed, Ihor Murashov, director general of Europe’s largest nuclear plant, was on the stone floor of a basement prison, accused by masked men of betraying Russia. He could hear the captors interrogating his chauffeur.
The 46-year-old Mr. Murashov, who had led the occupied Zaporizhzhia atomic energy station for seven months, was ordered by gun-brandishing guards to face the lens of a video camera. “What you say now will determine your fate,” he recalled one telling him.
To bring the power plant under its control and quell political dissent, Russia has detained and in many cases tortured hundreds of its workers, according to Mr. Murashov and more than a dozen of his subordinates interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The abuse started with lower-level technical and maintenance staff. It has since reached the most senior plant management, including Mr. Murashov, who was taken on Sept. 30 and released last month after lobbying by the United Nations and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Now on Ukrainian-held territory, Mr. Murashov and other nuclear staff who have made it out of internment said that a unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, operated underground prisons near the plant, where they struck detained workers with rifle butts and batons, shot them in the feet and elbows, deprived them of food and attached electrodes to their ears and fingers.
Some were held and tortured at an underground facility that the Russians called “the Hole.” One underwater repairman, Andriy Honcharuk, who was beaten into a coma in that jail, later died, according to plant workers.
Last month, security forces took Oleh Kostyukov, head of the plant’s information-technology service, from his work station to a different jail and beat him, according to Mr. Murashov, his colleagues and Energoatom, Ukraine’s state atomic energy company.
More than 200 staff have been detained and dozens are still missing, Energoatom said, numbers that haven’t been previously reported.
“They put them in prisons like the Hole, torture them and call their wives,” said Mr. Murashov, in his first media interview since being freed last month. “They think that by doing this they can change the minds of these people.”
“Some people’s spirits were broken, they were beaten so badly,” added Volodymyr Zhayvoronok, a 49-year-old plant contractor who said FSB officers repeatedly struck him with rifle butts during his 53 days in captivity. During an interview, he showed that he was missing a fingernail. He said it had been pulled off by interrogators. Wounds on his wrists were bandaged.
The accusations of torture and abuse raise new concerns about the safety of the workers tasked with forestalling a nuclear accident as the front line edges closer to the plant. Never before in the history of the tightly regulated nuclear industry has an active power plant been occupied by a hostile power.
Most of the plant’s 11,000 employees have fled, leaving behind a skeleton crew of around 3,000, according to Energoatom.
Remaining staffers are prevented from leaving and their cellphones are confiscated at checkpoints and searched for evidence of communication with Ukraine’s military or the outside world. Data connections between the station and the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear regulator, have repeatedly been cut.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry asked IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s office to help free Ukrainian plant personnel held by Russia, according to a restricted diplomatic cable reviewed by the Journal. Those missing personnel were taken not just from Zaporizhzhia but also Chernobyl, the defunct power station Russia briefly occupied during the first 36 days of the war.
The IAEA, which has four observers on site, has raised concerns about the pressure the Zaporizhzhia staff is under, and helped push for Mr. Murashov’s release. It didn’t respond to questions about the allegations of torture.
“As you know, the issue of the staff is one of the most important ones for me,” Mr. Grossi told reporters on Wednesday. The status of those imprisoned, he said, “is a more delicate issue, on which as you know the agency when it could, played a role.”
For Russia, the 6 gigawatt nuclear plant is one of the biggest trophies from an otherwise faltering war. The Zaporizhzhia station, among the last of the Soviet Union’s megaprojects, was a centerpiece of the empire’s prized atomic technology. It was also, to Moscow’s frustration, gradually becoming Westernized, running on European Union-funded computer systems and fuel provided by Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Co.
With the stroke of a pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin reversed that on Oct. 5, signing a decree declaring that the Zaporizhzhia plant and all its assets now belonged to a Russia-owned enterprise called JSC Operating Organization of Zaporozhye NPP.
Neither the Kremlin press office nor the FSB responded to requests for comment. A representative for Russian state-owned nuclear enterprise Rosatom said JSC’s duties “include overseeing the reliable operation of the plant’s power units while giving absolute and unconditional priority to safety regulations.”
The Journal heard firsthand accounts of detention, torture and coercive threats to work for Russia’s state nuclear company from senior managers, employees and contractors still working at the plant and those who managed to slip through the dozens of Russian checkpoints between Enerhodar and unoccupied Ukraine. Several showed bruises and lacerations they said were inflicted by Russian interrogators in makeshift prisons. Reporters also reviewed covertly taken photos from inside the plant and heard phone conversations between Russian officers that Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency said it intercepted.
Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s Energoatom, said that Rosatom officials weren’t involved in the staff detentions, but would tell them: “If you don’t want to join us, leave the plant, but we can’t be sure nothing terrible won’t happen to you outside.”
The detained workers include some of the plant’s most senior managers: Valeriy Martyniuk, Mr. Murashov’s deputy director for human resources, and Oleh Osheka, the plant’s assistant general director. The hundreds of others detained include office workers, electrical department engineers and contractors.
“Somebody simply wouldn’t show up to work, for example. Neighbors would say, ‘He was kidnapped from his apartment,’ ” said Oleh Dudar, head of the plant’s operational division, who fled in August to avoid being imprisoned. “Those people would come back beaten, absolutely shaking, their hands shaking, and some are still missing.”
Active fighting is drawing closer to the plant and to Enerhodar, the nearby satellite town constructed to house workers, both about four hours by road from the city of Kherson, which the Russians abandoned last week. None of its reactors is currently producing nuclear power, but the plant still requires pumps, fans, and computerized systems to cool spent fuel and remove radioactive particles from the air. Artillery fire around the facility has repeatedly disconnected the plant from the electrical grid, imperiling those operations.
Enerhodar, meaning “Gift of Energy,” no longer has steady electricity, leaving nuclear technicians to cook by campfires in near-freezing temperatures, residents said. Food and medicine are running short in shops and the local hospital, whose staff has largely fled. Russian officers walk through the streets in groups, drinking in the bars that remain open and driving stolen cars, while conscripts in ill-fitting uniforms guard the roughly 30 roadblocks erected to control residents.
“People I have talked to are scared, intimidated, frustrated, hungry, sleep-deprived. This degrades the safety-conscious work environment,” said Morgan D. Libby, a nuclear oversight officer at Rockville, Md.-based Excel Services Corp., who spent years working at plants in the former Soviet Union, including Zaporizhzhia, and remains in touch with former colleagues there. “The behavior is in direct contradiction to the IAEA covenants, treaties and agreements.”
On the war’s eve, administrative staff inside the sprawling, 250-acre facility were translating technical documents from Russian to Ukrainian. Soon, most of Ukraine’s 15 reactors would run on nuclear fuel from Westinghouse, which typically bundled its rods in rectangular-shaped structures, but had learned how to produce them in a Soviet-style hexagonal shape.
As Russian tanks were massing on Ukraine’s borders, hundreds of plant employees and their families were playing a twice-a-month scavenger hunt game named “Quest,” driving around in packed cars to find hidden messages in Enerhodar, residents said. The Soviet-designed city of gray apartment blocks was a tightknit community.
Residents had noticed newcomers wearing military boots loitering in bars and shops, but the plant’s new director general, Ihor Murashov, said he was too focused on his new post to notice. The son of a senior nuclear engineer, he had first visited the Zaporizhzhia power plant at age 15.
On Feb. 24, his eighth day in charge, Mr. Murashov awoke to news of Russia’s invasion, and rushed to the plant’s underground crisis center.
He emerged from the bunker a little over a week later to find his office riddled with bullet holes, smoke billowing over the charred wreckage of the training center and the body of a Ukrainian security guard covered by a blanket. Hundreds of Russian soldiers combed the staff parking lot, smashing windows and looting items off the seats.
A rooftop sniper shone a laser onto his head.
The next day, a man who introduced himself as a representative of the new civil-military administration summoned Mr. Murashov.
“You are part of the Russian Federation now,” Mr. Murashov recalled him saying. “From now on, you will work for Rosatom.”
On March 11, a Rosatom official named Oleg Romanenko arrived and took over the underground crisis center.
The plant was still producing electricity for unoccupied Ukraine, holding morning teleconferences with Kyiv. “We are working for Energoatom, producing electricity for Ukraine,” Mr. Murashov said at the top of each meeting.
Many workers, including native Russian speakers, switched to Ukrainian, and wore their work passes, with blue and yellow lanyards, visible at all times. After Russian soldiers ripped Ukrainian flags from the walls, some staff kept small desk flags.
Once a week, women wore vyshyvanka, traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts. Mr. Murashov said he began using coded language: “good evening” no matter the time of day, would indicate that Rosatom officials were within earshot.
Enerhodar’s installed mayor, Andrei Shevchik, a Russia-born former plant worker, began pressuring the staff to join Russia’s May 9 victory celebrations. When few volunteered, out-of-towners arrived in packed buses, cheering as loudspeakers blared Soviet anthems before Russian news crews, residents said.
Two weeks later, a bomb tore through Mr. Shevchik’s apartment. He had to be airlifted to Crimea, where he was placed in intensive care and survived.
On the first floor of Enerhodar’s commandeered police headquarters, a Russian FSB unit was looking for the bombers. Led by an officer who called himself “Vanya the Catcher,” the unit searched for signs of dissent among plant staff and residents. The investigators forced people to turn over their phones, which were scraped for clues about political leanings, according to detained workers, Ukraine’s defense intelligence and Energoatom.
On May 23, FSB officers approached the apartment of Serhiy Shvets, a maintenance technician who had joined the town’s fleeting roadblock defense. In phone calls intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence, the Catcher described Mr. Shvets as a target. When Mr. Shvets approached the door, Russian officers shot him five times, he said.
Mr. Shvets said that the Catcher visited him in the hospital. “You are a terrorist,” the Russian said, accusing the technician of involvement in the bomb attack that nearly killed the collaborationist mayor, which Mr. Shvets denied.
“Get ready,” said the Catcher. As soon as the hospital discharged him, he warned, they would come for him.
Mr. Shvets escaped to unoccupied Ukraine.
His neighbor, Mr. Zhayvoronok, whose company installed security cameras at the plant, and who had heard the gunfire, was terrified he would be next. Mr. Zhayvoronok said he had mulled using his scuba diving gear to escape across the Dnipro River. Dozens of plant workers and other Enerhodar residents were starting to go missing.
In June, Mr. Zhayvoronok said, he was stopped at a roadblock, where soldiers demanded his phone password and found photos of a Russian foot patrol and a list of cars stolen from civilians, which they considered evidence of subversion. He was taken to the police station and thrown into one of three basement holding cells filling up with plant workers.
At the plant, Mr. Murashov was now receiving near daily reports of staff disappearances. One was arrested near the Dnipro, where he was using Ukraine’s Kyivstar cell network to call family in unoccupied Ukraine. A leading nuclear engineer who held one the most important jobs at the plant was reported missing, said Mr. Dudar, the operational division head.
His job was “basically to control a huge nuclear bomb that doesn’t explode but slowly smolders,” Mr. Dudar said. “They kept him for a couple of weeks, beat him. His wife was going crazy.”
Soldiers searching workers on the roads and entrances to the plant banned phones with cameras or internet access, fearing workers would photograph military hardware and pass locations to Ukrainian defense forces. Workers had to run the plant using decade-old Nokias they nicknamed “babushka phones.” In June, Ukrainian drones had flown over the plant and bombed the Russian field kitchen, wounding several Russian soldiers and damaging armored vehicles, plant workers said.
The town’s new Russia-installed mayor, Alexander Volga, regularly encouraged plant leaders to accept the inevitability of working for the occupation. “Russia is here forever,” he said in one June meeting, according to three people present.
Mr. Murashov addressed the frightened workers. “All of you have difficult decisions to make,” he said. “What I want you to know is this is a very specialized plant. Nobody else in the world can run this plant but you.”
By the end of June, the 6-by-12-foot holding cells below the commandeered police station were overflowing. Mr. Zhayvoronok’s was so full of people sleeping head to toe, the prisoners called it Tetris. Six of his 14 cellmates were plant workers. They told him to brace for interrogations and beatings by the FSB officers upstairs and gave him an instruction: When you hear a key turning in the cell door, face the wall with your hands up and legs apart.
After several days, he was taken to an upstairs room for the first of many interrogations by the Catcher, an athletic man dressed in a designer tracksuit who smoked Davidoff slim cigarettes, according to Mr. Zhayvoronok and two other people interrogated by him.
The FSB officer pistol-whipped him and demanded the names of informers for Ukrainian intelligence. Other officers wearing balaclavas entered the room and attached electrodes to Mr. Zhayvoronok’s ears, before the Catcher doused him with water.
“He beat me with a passion,” Mr. Zhayvoronok said, an account corroborated by two cellmates who also described beatings by Catcher.
The holding cells under Enerhodar’s police station were just one part of a secret prison network scattered across the nuclear town. Some suspects were taken to the Hole, a cellar located at a former Ukrainian national guard base on the edge of town.
On July 3, Mr. Murashov received news that a plant diver, Andrii Honcharuk, was beaten so badly at the facility that he was in a coma. He died of his injuries a few days later.
“There were a lot of patriotic people taken to those pits across the town,” Mr. Murashov said.
To lift spirits as their detention stretched to months, Mr. Zhayvoronok and the Zaporizhzhia technicians in his cell played crosswords cut from jailers’ discarded newspapers and performed pantomimes, including Peter and the Wolf. Family members smuggled notes into food deliveries offering coded updates from home. Two workers who both had black eyes jokingly called themselves “the Racoons.”
A weekly highlight was taking out the trash, the only time they were allowed fresh air. “You would sniff and it would make you high,” Mr. Zhayvoronok said.
Most detainees were released after several weeks if their families could afford a bribe to the FSB or if they recorded a video statement that would be aired on Russian television channels, plant workers said. Those Russia freed would be told to regularly return to the police station to check in with authorities.
“Hello everybody,” began one confessional video from a longtime Enerhodar resident, viewed by the Journal. “What I want to say is please come back to Enerhodar, everything is all right. Russians are doing all good things for us. You can come back home and it’s all good.”
The man was arrested and interrogated five times, a close friend of his said: “They used electricity to torture him.”
Another maintenance technician, who spent more than 70 days in prisons, described the Hole as a windowless underground room with a single guarded entrance. It was empty aside from wooden boxes and boards to sleep on and “smelled like feces and chlorine antiseptic,” he said.
He was shot in the foot, and the wound became infected. Guards threatened to rape his wife, then undressed him and threatened to rape him, he said. His face was too bruised to record a propaganda video, he said. His guards accepted a bribe for his freedom, but he has been unable to leave Enerhodar.
“It’s now almost impossible for plant workers to leave,” he said, reached on an encrypted messenger. “We’re in a nuclear prison.”
By September, nearly three quarters of the plant’s staff had left, leaving Mr. Murashov to face down an escalating succession of safety crises with a dwindling number of personnel. On Sept. 5, artillery fire broke an electrical connection to the plant. That forced the plant into an emergency state called, in nuclear terminology, “island mode,” disconnected from the grid. If the reactor went offline, the plant would have no safe or sustainable source of electricity to pump in water to cool it. The staff ultimately shut down the last remaining reactor.
On Sept. 30, Mr. Putin declared that the surrounding Zaporizhzhia province, including the plant, was part of Russia. The station, he decreed, would be taken over by the new state-owned company he’d created. Mr. Romanenko, the Rosatom engineer who’d arrived in the first week of the occupation, would manage it.
Russian authorities asked if Mr. Murashov would agree to work for Russia and Mr. Romanenko. He declined.
On Mr. Murashov’s way home that afternoon, an armored truck blocked the road ahead. Soldiers demanded that he and his driver exit the car, cuffed them and placed sacks over their heads.
His abduction fast became an international incident. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for his release in a prime time TV address and lobbied President Macron to help, a close aide to the president said. Mr. Macron called the IAEA’s director general, who publicly called Mr. Murashov’s arrest a cause for “grave concern” and privately sought assurances from the Kremlin that he wouldn’t be hurt.
In the basement, Mr. Murashov was bracing for abuse from his captors. To his surprise, he said, their questioning only psychologically pressured him. After three days, an FSB officer brought a camera and a piece of paper with prepared remarks, then told him to record a video confessing that he had passed secrets to Ukraine’s government.
In his interview with the Journal, Mr. Murashov denied he passed secrets, and his fellow employees and officials also said they had no recollections of him ever doing so.
Still, in a 45-second clip which would later be shown on Russian television, Mr. Murashov was seen reading his captors’ talking points. Another video, circulated on Russian social media shortly afterwards, showed him in a grassy field near the front line, this time being chastised by a masked Russian soldier at the last check post before unoccupied Ukraine.
“Ihor Valeriyevich Murashov,” the masked soldier said, “you have discredited Russian authorities.”
Mr. Murashov nodded, then walked alone toward Ukrainian positions.