Russia’s Chernobyl seizure seen as nuclear risk ‘nightmare’

 Russia’s Chernobyl seizure seen as nuclear risk ‘nightmare’


Chernobyl, Ukraine – Here in the dirt of one of the world’s most radioactive places, Russian soldiers dug trenches. Ukrainian officials worry they were, in effect, digging their own graves.

Thousands of tanks and troops rumbled into the forested Chernobyl exclusion zone in the earliest hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, churning up highly contaminated soil from the site of the 1986 accident that was the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

A Russian firing position sits adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022. Thousands of tanks and troops rumbled into the forested Chernobyl exclusion zone in the earliest hours of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, churning up highly contaminated soil from the site of the 1986 accident that was the world's worst nuclear disaster.

More: Events in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday, March 20, 2022

For more than a month, some Russian soldiers bunked in the earth within sight of the massive structure built to contain radiation from the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor. A close inspection of their trenches was impossible because even walking on the dirt is discouraged.

As the 36th anniversary of the April 26, 1986, disaster approaches and Russia’s invasion continues, it’s clear that Chernobyl – a relic of the Cold War – was never prepared for this.

Trenches and firing positions sit in the highly radioactive soil adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022.

With scientists and others watching in disbelief from afar, Russian forces flew over the long-closed plant, ignoring the restricted airspace around it. They held personnel still working at the plant at gunpoint during a marathon shift of more than a month, with employees sleeping on tabletops and eating just twice a day.

Even now, weeks after the Russians left, “I need to calm down,” the plant’s main security engineer, Valerii Semenov, told The Associated Press. He worked 35 days straight, sleeping only three hours a night, rationing cigarettes and staying on even after the Russians allowed a shift change.

Valerii Semenov, main security engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, poses for a photo in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, April 18, 2022.

“I was afraid they would install something and damage the system,” he said in an interview.

Workers kept the Russians from the most dangerous areas, but in what Semenov called the worst situation he has seen in his 30 years at Chernobyl, the plant was without electricity, relying on diesel generators to support the critical work of circulating water for cooling the spent fuel rods.

A Russian firing position sits near a shelter adjacent to the containment structure covering the damaged reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022.

“It was very dangerous to act in this way,” said Maksym Shevchuck, the deputy head of the state agency managing the exclusion zone. He was scared by it all.

Russia’s invasion marks the first time that occupying a nuclear plant was part of a nation’s war strategy, said Rebecca Harms, former president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, who has visited Chernobyl several times. She called it a “nightmare” scenario in which “every nuclear plant can be used as a pre-installed nuclear bomb.”

A visit to the exclusion zone, more desolate than usual, found that the invasion risked a catastrophe worse than the original explosion and fire at Chernobyl that sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s stumbling final years. Billions of dollars were spent by the international community, including Russia, to stabilize and secure the area.



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