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Ukraine reclaims Chernobyl nuclear plant as Russian forces withdraw

The International Atomic Energy Agency says the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant is now back in Ukrainian hands, but hasn’t confirmed reports that Russian troops left because they were experiencing radiation sickness

Health 1 April 2022

Russian forces at Chernobyl

Russian forces at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, on 7 March

Russia MOD/EYEPRESS/Shutterstock

Russian troops have withdrawn from Chernobyl and officially handed back control of the site to Ukrainian staff, says the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Both he and Ukrainian regulators had warned for several weeks that Russian military occupation had degraded the security and safety of the decommissioned nuclear plant.

The Ukrainian state energy company Energoatom alleged on Telegram that Russian troops had withdrawn hastily because they had experienced radiation sickness from digging trenches in contaminated ground. IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi, in a press conference on 1 April immediately following trips to Ukraine and Russia to talk to regulators, said he had been given no explanation as to why troops left. But he described the withdrawal as “undoubtedly a step in the right direction” for safety.

The IAEA said in a statement that troops had, officially and in writing, transferred control of Chernobyl to Ukrainian personnel and moved some soldiers towards Belarus. Other soldiers had also left the city of Slavutych, where many scientists and staff working at Chernobyl live.

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The situation at Chernobyl has been tense since the first day of the invasion, when Russian troops seized the site. Scientific monitors detected a local increase in radiation levels, which was put down to Russian tanks disturbing contaminated dust – a problem that Grossi said may have been repeated as troops left. Since then, scientists who had been working at the site have been unable to access their laboratories and staff at the plant were held for several weeks without being able to rest or rotate shifts.

Grossi had repeatedly called on Russia to allow an international team access to ensure safety, and he said in the 1 April press conference that the IAEA had already begun delivering essential equipment and would send staff to sites across Ukraine as of next week. This will help improve communications with IAEA headquarters, he said, as it had proven “laborious to establish facts” over recent weeks.

“We’re going to be there very, very soon, because in Chernobyl there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said, adding that work to establish a common agreement with Russia, Ukraine and the IAEA had made little progress, but separate agreements with each side had seen some headway.

Peter Martin at the University of Bristol, UK, says that there are radioactive materials buried in the areas surrounding Chernobyl that could cause illness if, as reported, troops dug trenches near them and spent several weeks in the area.

“If someone said ‘I’m digging trenches next to some of these kind of disposal sites’, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had some cases of radiation sickness coming on,” he says. “So you’re probably looking at starting to get nausea, loss of white blood cell count, things like that. Generally things that make you feel a bit unwell. But you’re unlikely to get burns.”

Bruno Merk at the University of Liverpool, UK, says that the risk of serious illness is minimal, and only possible if soldiers dug at the precise location that radioactive material was buried. “The real risk for exposed soldiers is, in my view, the cancer risk due to inhalation of mobilised radioactive material from contaminated soil being dispersed. This effect we would maybe see in 10 years,” he says.

Yaroslav Emelianenko at the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, which manages the area around Chernobyl, said safety steps would now take place that were similar to those seen in 1986 in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, according to a post by Ukrainian state energy company Energoatom on Telegram. This would include washing roads and buildings and burying any trenches dug by Russian soldiers, said Emelianenko.

Grossi said that the IAEA had no information about nuclear material having gone missing from Chernobyl, as was reported this week by Ukraine’s Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants, but said that his staff in Ukraine would be working to fix various radiation monitors that had gone offline since the invasion and seek to verify the location and safety of any nuclear material.

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