Workers at all five of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants began nationwide protests on 24 February demanding immediate payment of wage arrears. The protests began with picketing of the main government building in Kiev and camps were set up for the protesters in all of the satellite towns that serve the nuclear stations operated by nuclear utility, Energoatom.

The strikers demanded that Energoatom should be offered a budgetary credit worth 390 million hryvnas (around $100 million), in part to pay off wage arrears totalling $43 million. If the demands are not met the operators are threatening to begin hunger strikes. The government has promised to cover debts to the tune of 260 million hryvnas ($71 million) but no money has been transferred.

So far the workers have avoided any action affecting reactor operation, but it is not clear what sort of strike action is being considered. The health authorities have been asked to carry out health checks on the workers before the start of their shifts, to minimise the risk to safe operation of the 14 reactors involved. The workers are threatening to escalate their action to all-out strikes if their demands are not met. Action could involve a simultaneous 30% reduction of power in all nuclear plants’ output.

Union leaders say that strikes are no more dangerous than starvation.

“Workers who are hungry and stressed cannot guarantee safety,” points out Igor Karanedov, in charge of emergency systems at Zaporozhye nuclear power plant.