The world’s top nuclear watcher warned on Tuesday that while Ukraine has regained control of the Chernobyl power plant, continued vigilance is needed at the infamous facility in the midst of war.
“The situation is not stable, we must be on alert,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said during a visit to the facility amid concerns over the the earlier seizure of the plant by Russia.
Grossi arrived just weeks after the withdrawal of Russian forces from northern Ukraine.
His visit also came 36 years to the day after a reactor at the plant melted down in 1986. It was the worst nuclear disaster to date and left a large area around the plant largely uninhabitable at that time. day and released nuclear material that contaminated areas beyond. the country’s borders.
Chernobyl’s other three nuclear reactors continued to operate for 14 years after the accident; in 2000, the plant began the process of dismantling. This work is ongoing and involves the decontamination of the plant and the area around it, including any soil and water that may be radioactive, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Although the plant no longer provides electricity to Ukrainians, it will likely require monitoring for generations to come, the agency said.
Monitoring levels in Chernobyl
During Tuesday’s visit, agency inspectors moved new monitoring equipment to Chernobyl to re-establish a communications link that provides data from the facility to agency headquarters in Vienna.
During the initial attack on Ukraine, Chernobyl was disconnected from the country’s central power grid by Russian forces. The station had backup generators, but if these failed, a prolonged loss of electricity could have prevented the spent fuel rods from cooling and led to a massive failure of radiation containment in the facility.
“We were worried,” a senior Ukrainian National Guard commander told a CBC News team at the site.
Oleksii, who did not want his surname or rank used, feared the Russians would return.
“There is spent nuclear fuel, and if there was no electricity, it could have had catastrophic consequences. A second Chernobyl,” he explained.
Grossi pointed out this danger.
“What we had was a nuclear safety situation that could have turned into an accident,” said the director general of the international agency.
More work now needs to be done to ensure safety, he said.
Russian troops refused to let Chernobyl workers go
Chernobyl was one of the first areas to be captured when the Russian invasion began on February 24. It is only 16 kilometers from the border with Belarus, through which Russian tanks poured into Ukraine.
Upon arrival, Russian soldiers refused to allow station employees to leave as planned, sparking international warnings that employee burnout could lead to an accident at the sensitive site.
When they withdrew from the site, Russian forces took 169 members of the Ukrainian National Guard prisoner, according to Ukraine. Minister of Internal Affairs.
WATCH | When Russia took control of Chernobyl, the families of the factory workers voiced their concerns:
Some Russian soldiers are said to have fallen ill after digging trenches in the contaminated no-man’s land surrounding Chernobyl, according to Ukrainian government officials linked to Energoatom, the country’s utility.
Signs in the area warn not to disturb dust and soil.
“There were times when the [radiation] the levels increased due to the movement of heavy equipment that Russian forces were bringing here and leaving,” Grossi said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency notes that exposure to low levels of radiation over a period of time is much less dangerous than one-time exposure to a significant amount of it.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has denied that its forces have endangered nuclear facilities inside Ukraine.
Other reactors in conflict zones
Ukraine has four other nuclear power plants, some of which have multiple reactors.
The Zaporizhzhia power plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar has six reactors and the site came under fire from Russian forces early in the war. At the time, Grossi said a Russian projectile hit a training facility, but none of the reactors.
There is another power station near the battered southern city of Mykolaiv where Russian military activity has increased after an operational reset that saw forces leave the north and concentrate their firepower in the south and east of the country.
A grim birthday
Chernobyl is surrounded by a 20 kilometer exclusion zone. The once thriving towns surrounding the factory have been largely abandoned, with thick brush obscuring many buildings from what was once a busy road.
In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion, a base was established for the hundreds of firefighters brought in from across the country to deal with the blaze and radioactive scene.
In the same place, the Chernobyl fire station is still standing.
On Tuesday’s anniversary, dozens of firefighters paid tribute to their predecessors; many firefighters died in the days and years following the accident.
More recently, the fire station faced a new threat: the appearance of Russian soldiers at its gates.
“We weren’t ready for war,” Colonel Sergii Strelchenko said. “But we did our duty and our Ukrainian flag was still flying.”