Zarina Zabrisky speaks to an engineer at the Ukrainian nuclear plant about the risks posed by Russia’s invasion and control of the facility

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense warned yesterday that the Russian occupation of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone dramatically increases the risk of the release of significant amounts of radioactive dust into the atmosphere that could contaminate not only Ukraine but nearby European countries. 

According to the Ministry, Russian military transport, rockets, artillery shells, and substandard mortar ammunition stored a few hundred meters from the nuclear power plant run a high risk of detonation.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and facilities in the Exclusion Zone have been under the control of the Russian military since 24 February, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Regulatory control over the state of nuclear and radiation safety at the site is impossible. 

The Russian military continues to grossly violate the requirements of radiation safety and sanitation at the plant and in the exclusion zone, which risks causing the radiation situation at the site to deteriorate. At the same time, Russian troops are accused of shelling nearby checkpoints and have attempted to seize the satellite town of Slavutych, where many of the staff at the power plant live. 

Officials have now warned that if the current situation continues, the radiation conditions in the Chornobyl exclusion zone may deteriorate significantly in the near future, impacting both Ukraine and neighbouring countries.


The Disinformation War

The situation in Chornobyl has become key to Putin’s disinformation war.

The day following the invasion, Russian state-funded media repeated an allegation from Putin that Ukraine was developing a ‘dirty bomb’ in Chornobyl with the collaboration of Western partners. Within days, the story had escalated – on 6 March, RIA Novosti quoted a representative of the Russian Federation who declared: “Kyiv used the Chornobyl nuclear power plant zone for work on the manufacture of a ‘dirty’ bomb and the separation of plutonium”. The claim alleged that Ukraine and its partners were using increased background radiation in the Chornobyl zone to cover up the plan. 

Chornobyl has also been presented as a possible target for a ‘false flag’ event. The Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine has said that Putin is preparing a “a man-made catastrophe” on the Chornobyl plant, for which Russia planned to blame Ukraine. 

Little wonder, then, that Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov accused Russia of being “a nuclear terrorist state”, asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to break its silence and intervene. 

Last week, Greenpeace International warned that the IAEA’s effectiveness in working with the Ukrainian government is directly undermined by the presence of Mikhail Chudakov, a former Deputy Director-General of Rosatom, the Russian Federation agency, and the Deputy Director-General of the IAEA since 2015. Greenpeace International called for the immediate suspension of Chudakov from his positions at the IAEA.

The Coordination Headquarters of the Exclusion Zone has also warned that the Russian military is preparing “a series of fake propaganda videos” about the “stable and successful work of Chornobyl and peaceful cooperation between Russians and Ukrainians, after the liberation from the ‘Nazis’”. Dozens of individuals arrived at the exclusion zone to participate in the videos, posing as Chornobyl workers and Ukrainian. 

This is a strategy known as maskirovka: designed to disguise the reality: “an increase of radiation background; environmental pollution; arson of radioactive forest; the destruction of the central analytical laboratory worth €6 million”. 

The Kremlin narrative is targeting international professional organisations such as the IAEA, in order to warn off foreign intervention. This was confirmed by a report of a Russian security source, claiming that Russia wanted “to control the Chornobyl nuclear reactor to signal to NATO not to interfere militarily”.


Nuclear Disaster

The presence of military operations and fighting in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant comes with many risks. Stray bullets could hit reactors and nuclear waste storage structures, causing the release of radiation. Such leaks threaten nearby towns – while radionuclides carried by the wind can travel far and wide.

When this happens, radioactive rains poison those on the ground, causing severe illness and death. The wind can carry radionuclides towards Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the countries of the European Union – even as far as Scandinavian countries.

The European Union recognises the danger and has stocked up on iodine pills and protective suits. 

The Chornobyl nuclear power plant was shut down after the devastating accident in 1986. But the site still has storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel which present a risk, according to an anonymous Chornobyl engineer, who spoke to Byline Times.

He warned of radiation spreading outside the facility in unpredictable directions and unpredictable quantities, not least if the coolants that protect spent fuel are impacted by the war. 

“Spent fuel is stored in ponds filled with water that functions as both a coolant and a moderator,” he explains. “At the moment, the most critical facility is the Centralised Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility Number One (TsHOYAT-1). Called ‘wet type’, it was built for the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel. In the event of a power outage, there is a risk of insufficient cooling of the water circulating in the ponds. This can lead to water evaporation. If the water heats up from the residual heat, it will begin to evaporate from the fuel assemblies”.

It’s this heating up and evaporation that can lead to the spread of radiation. On 9 March, the Russian military disabled the power lines at the plant and in the spent nuclear storage facilities and threatened to shoot the Ukrainian repair team. The power was only restored on 14 March. Needless to say, such an interruption is dangerous. 

“The facility ventilation system does not work properly during a power outage,” the engineer added. “When the ventilation system is not operational, this can cause corrosion at the other high-risk areas”. 

When there is a power outage, such as the one forced by Russian forces, the entire fire extinguishing system for the Chornobyl power plant is not operational. This means that if a fire had broken out between 9-14 March, it would have been almost impossible to put out. 

“In the period of 11 to 21 March, multiple wildfires were reported in the area, some within the 10 or 30 kilometres of the station,” the engineer told Byline Times

When Chornobyl’s trees burn, they send their stored radionuclides aloft as inhalable aerosols. This means that during a fire, contamination can come from the trees that cover some 660 square miles around the nuclear power plant. 

“There is a high probability that in the spring-summer period the intensity of forest fires in the exclusion zone can reach the maximum possible limits and can lead to the almost complete burnout of radioactively contaminated forests,” he added.

Alongside the nuclear dangers, the Russian military held 211 plant employees hostage for 24 days, with only 64 out of 211 employees returned. 

“The personnel were under the constant supervision of armed guards,” the engineer said. “They had to sleep on chairs and tables, and ate once or twice a day. They were also affected by the knowledge that their families suffered from a humanitarian catastrophe in Slavutych”. 

The physical and psychological toll on those taken hostage has been severe – which in itself puts the safety of the plant – and large swathes of the region – at risk. “Employees are mentally and physically fatigued and cannot fully carry out the maintenance and repair of these critical facilities,” the engineer explained.

“With insufficient maintenance and repair, the risk of an emergency, such as, for example – a leak in a pool – increases. If this happens, the fuel in the pools will remain without water. In this case, it is impossible to exclude by 100% the possibility of a self-sustaining chain reaction of neutron fission”.

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