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Ukraine makes surprise advances in the east; Russian-held nuclear reactor powers down

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Ukrainian forces have broken through Russia's front lines in the east, retaking strategic towns and territory in a surprise counteroffensive. Meanwhile, the operator of the nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, controlled by Russia and at the center of a lot of international concern, announced it's powering down the final working reactor at the plant. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us from Dnipro, Ukraine.

Lots of news to get to. Welcome to the program.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Thanks.

RASCOE: Let's start with the latest at the nuclear power plant.

NADWORNY: So the plant's operator, Energoatom, says it is preparing reactor No. 6 - so that's the last remaining reactor - to be cooled and transferred to a cold state. That's the safest state possible. Power lines have been restored to the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which means it's connected to the grid, at least for the time being.

RASCOE: What does this mean for risk at the plant?

NADWORNY: Well, power is still a big issue, even with the reactors shut down and in a cold state. Because they're running, you still need them to stay cool, even if it takes less power. And if they don't stay cool, if you don't power that, you can have a meltdown. So now they're connected to the grid. But if that changes, which is not totally unlikely, given the amount of shelling in the area, the generator fuel countdown clock starts. And they have a limited amount of fuel on site. Given the active fighting, it's not an easy resupply. On Friday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency issued his most dire message so far, saying the risk of an accident had, quote, "significantly increased."

RASCOE: So what does that mean long term? That doesn't sound, like, good, if you understand what I'm saying.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Long term - I mean, they can't restart the reactors without reliable access to the grid. So this probably takes the plant out of the game from a power-producing perspective. And remember, this is the second-largest power plant in Europe. So there was some hope that maybe Ukraine could use this plant to power Europe through the winter. That's looking very unlikely now.

RASCOE: So let's turn to this big Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeast. Ukraine has taken back several towns in a really short period of time.

NADWORNY: Yeah. It's been an eventful weekend here in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials claim to have recaptured more than 1,200 miles since the beginning of September. They say their forces have made it to the towns of Izyum, Balakliya, Kupiansk. All of these are strategic places in the Kharkiv region. So that's in the country's northeast. These are places that have been controlled by Russian forces for the last six months. Here's Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video released late last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: He's saying, the Russian army is showing its best side - it's back. And it's a good choice for them to run away. Now, Izyum, Kupiansk - these are transportation and supply hubs for the Russian forces. So this is going to be a big loss strategically for Russia.

I talked with Melinda Haring. She's a Eurasia expert with the Atlantic Council.

MELINDA HARING: If the gains are held, it's a serious blow for Russia, and it's an enormous boost for Ukraine. It shows the West that Ukraine is a trusted and reliable partner and that they are extremely capable.

RASCOE: And so what's Russia saying about this? Are they confirming that Ukraine is advancing?

NADWORNY: Russia's Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin have not officially acknowledged the counter offensive. But defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov confirmed that Moscow's forces withdrew from Balakliya and Izyum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGOR KONASHENKOV: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: He says Russian troops pulled back to, quote, "regroup" in order to scale up efforts in the Donetsk region. He's saying this at the time that Russian media state reporters are on the ground insisting that the move was taken to avoid a route by Ukrainian forces.

RASCOE: And I understand that you were near this moving front line yesterday.

NADWORNY: That's right. We were in Slovyansk - so a city that's just south and east of Izyum - visiting with the elderly. There were a lot of explosions. Windows were rattling, as we sat in the fourth-floor apartment with a woman named Larisa (ph). She's housebound. She was encouraged by the news of the counteroffensive. She follows the stuff on TV very closely, but also said, essentially, hurry up.

LARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: So she's saying there's no heating where she has no fuel because of the infrastructure damage. She's so close to the front lines. She pointed to the small electric heater in her living room and said, you know, that's all I've got - that, and a bunch of blankets.

RASCOE: Wow. That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Thank you so much for joining us.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.