CHORNOBYL, UKRAINE — Here, in the dust of one of the most radioactive places in the world, Russian soldiers dug trenches. Ukrainian officials fear they are actually digging their own graves.
Thousands of tanks and soldiers entered the wooded Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the early hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, heaving heavily contaminated soil from the site of the 1986 crash that left been the worst nuclear disaster in the world.
For more than a month, Russian soldiers hid in the dirt within sight of the massive structure built to contain radiation from the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Close inspection of their trenches was impossible as even walking on the earth is inadvisable.
As the 36th anniversary of April 26, 1986, disaster approaches and the Russian invasion continues, it is clear that Chernobyl – a relic of the Cold War – was never prepared for this.
As scientists and others watched in disbelief from afar, Russian forces hovered over the long-closed plant, ignoring the tight airspace that surrounded it. They held staff still working at the factory at gunpoint for a marathon shift lasting more than a month, with employees sleeping on tables and eating only twice a day.
Even now, weeks after the Russians left, “I have to calm down,” the plant’s lead safety engineer, Valerii Semenov, told The Associated Press. He worked 35 days straight, sleeping only three hours a night, rationing cigarettes and staying even after the Russians allowed a shift change.
“I was afraid that they would install something and damage the system,” he said in an interview.
Workers kept Russians away from the most dangerous areas, but in what Semenov called the worst situation he had seen in his 30 years in Chernobyl, the plant was without electricity, relying on diesel generators to support the critical work of circulating water to cool past fuel rods.
“It was very dangerous to act like this,” said Maksym Shevchuck, deputy head of the state agency that runs the exclusion zone. He was afraid of it all.
The invasion of Russia marks the first time that occupying a nuclear power plant has been part of a country’s war strategy, said Rebecca Harms, former chair of the Greens group in the European Parliament, who spoke visited Chernobyl several times. She called it a “nightmare” scenario in which “every nuclear power plant can be used as a pre-installed nuclear bomb”.
A visit to the exclusion zone, more desolate than usual, revealed that the invasion risked a disaster worse than the original explosion and fire in Chernobyl which sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and have become a symbol of the last stumbling years of the Soviet Union. Billions of dollars have been spent by the international community, including Russia, to stabilize and secure the area.
Now the authorities are working with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on ways to protect the most critical places in Chernobyl. At the top of the list are anti-drone systems and anti-tank barriers, as well as a protection system against warplanes and helicopters.
None of this will matter much if Russian President Vladimir Putin resorts to nuclear weapons, which Shevchuck says he can no longer rule out.
“I understand they can use any type of weapon and they can do anything,” he said.
Chernobyl needs special international protection with a strong UN mandate, Harms said. As with the initial disaster, the risks are not just in Ukraine, but also in neighboring Belarus and beyond.
“It depends on where the wind is blowing,” she said.
After watching thousands of Soviet soldiers working to contain the effects of the 1986 crash, sometimes unprotected, Harms and others were shocked by Russian soldiers’ disregard for safety, or ignorance, during the recent invasion.
Some soldiers even stole highly radioactive materials as souvenirs or possibly to resell.
“I think from the movies, they have the imagination that all the little dangerous things are very precious,” Shevchuck said.
He believes that hundreds or thousands of soldiers damaged their health, probably without any idea of the consequences, despite warnings from factory workers to their commanders.
“Most of the soldiers were around 20 years old,” he said. “All these actions prove that their management, and in Russia in general, human life is zero.”
The extent of Russian activity in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is still unknown, not least because troops have dispersed mines that the Ukrainian military is still looking for. Some exploded, further disturbing the radioactive soil. The Russians also started several forest fires, which were extinguished.
Ukrainian authorities cannot monitor radiation levels in the area because Russian soldiers stole the system’s main server, cutting the connection on March 2. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Saturday it was still not receiving remote data from its monitoring systems. The Russians even took personal radiation monitors from Chernobyl staff.
In the communication center, one of the buildings in the area not invaded by nature, the Russians looted and left a carpet of broken glass. The building smelled deeply of the 1980s, with a map on one wall still showing the Soviet Union. Someone at some point had taken a pink marker and drawn the Ukrainian border.
Normally, about 6,000 people work in the area, about half of them at the nuclear power plant. When the Russians invaded, most workers were ordered to evacuate immediately. Today, there are about 100 left at the nuclear plant and 100 elsewhere.
Semenov, the security engineer, recalled that the Russians were screening the remaining workers for what they called radicals.
“We said, ‘Look at our documents, 90% of us are from Russia,'” he said. “But we are patriots of our country”, that is, Ukraine.
When the Russians left hastily on March 31 in a withdrawal from the region that left behind burnt-out tanks and traumatized communities, they took more than 150 members of Ukraine’s National Guard to Belarus. Shevchuck fears they are now in Russia.
In their haste, the Russians gave the nuclear plant officials a choice: sign a document stating that the soldiers had protected the site and that there were no complaints, or be taken to Belarus. The managers have signed.
One protective measure the Russians appeared to be taking was to leave open a line carrying communications from the nuclear power plant through the working-class town of Slavutych and to authorities in the Ukrainian capital, kyiv. It’s been used multiple times, Shevchuck said.
“I think they understood it had to be for their safety,” he said. The IAEA said Tuesday that the plant is now able to contact Ukraine’s nuclear regulator directly.
Another Ukrainian nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, remains under Russian control. It is the biggest in Europe.
Shevchuck, like other Ukrainians, is fed up with Putin.
“We invite him inside the new secure containment shelter,” he said. “Then we will close it.”
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