Chernobyl anniversary offers a bleak look at what may await other Ukrainian nuclear plants

A group of Chernobyl liquidators getting ready to remove radioactive debris in 1986.
A group of Chernobyl liquidators getting ready to remove radioactive debris in 1986.

Publish date: April 26, 2023

A little over a year ago, Russian troops abandoned Chernobyl after briefly occupying it during the grim opening days of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The takeover of the site where the world’s worst nuclear disaster happened thirty-seven years ago this week offered a preview of the reckless disregard for nuclear safety that has characterized so much of this war.

While the site has been left to Ukraine to painstakingly restore since the Russian withdrawal on March 31, 2022, the new anniversary of the Chernobyl plant’s original disaster on April 26, 1986, leaves lingering questions about what, exactly, the world can do when Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure — or indeed any nuclear infrastructure — is attacked by a hostile neighbor.

The answer, at this point?  Not much — aside from trying to pick up the pieces after the damage is already done.

As it stands, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is still dotted with mines planted by Russian troops when they rolled into the territory, churning up clouds of radioactive dust with hundreds of heavily armored vehicles. The mines have made treacherous any efforts to restore the territory.

Russian troops also dug trenches and set fires in an area known as the Red Forest — a gnarled expanse of irradiated trees — and scorched, according to NASA, some 14,000 hectares of land, filling the air with so much radioactive smoke that it was unsafe for firefighters to quell the blazes.

All the while, hundreds of Chernobyl employees — who oversee the site’s sprawling network of spent fuel storage facilities as well as the enormous efforts to dismantle the radioactive remnants of the exploded No. 4 reactor — were held hostage onsite, prevented from rotating out at the end of their shifts. Five workers were kidnapped and nine were killed, according to The Washington Post.

Those who remained said later that they had tried to keep the Russians from the most dangerous areas within the plant’s territory. But in what many called the worst situation they have seen in the decades since the initial disaster, Chernobyl’s power was cut by fighting, leaving them to rely on diesel generators  for nearly a week to support the critical work of circulating water to cool spent nuclear fuel.

The damage the Russian soldiers did wasn’t purely technical. Doors to offices were ripped off hinges, windows smashed, walls spray-painted with graffiti.

“The poop was the icing on the cake,” Aleksander Barsukov, deputy director of the Chernobyl Ecocenter, which keeps samples of radioactive material collected from all over the world, told The Wall Street Journal after the Russian retreat.

By the time Russian troops pulled back from the plant on March 31, 2022 — amid reports of possible radiation poisoning among their ranks — Chernobyl’s technicians had been held at literal gunpoint at their workstations for more than a month.

During the retreat, according to Ukrainian accounts, Russian soldiers ransacked the site and took anything that looked valuable, looting more than 1,000 computers, and spiriting away dosimeters, software, lab tools, firefighting equipment — and in some cases even household appliances — piling them in stolen Ukrainian trucks.

“Whatever they didn’t steal, they broke,” Chernobyl Information Director Vitaly Medved told the BBC at the time.

Russian soldiers then brazenly mailed much of the booty home from across the Belarusian border. They also made off with radioactive instruments used to calibrate personal dosimeters for Chernobyl staff — substances that can cause radiation burns if handled improperly.

According to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which has financed much of Chernobyl’s cleanup work since the original 1986 disaster, the Russian Army’s destructive adventure in the world’s most famous radioactive wasteland will cost some €100 million to repair.

The four RBMK reactors at the enormous nuclear station in Chernobyl no longer produce power, but before the invasion nearly 6,000 workers monitored the lasting effects of the disastrous meltdown that took place in 1986, as well oversaw as processing spent nuclear fuel from other plants in Ukraine. In the days before the invasion, all but a few hundred employees were evacuated.

Located just a few miles from the Belarusian border, Chernobyl was one of the first places occupied by Russian troops. Yevhen Kramarenko, the director of the exclusion zone — the  2,6000-square-kilometer area where radiation levels remain high and public access is limited — told The Washington Post that on the first day of the invasion, a Russian general presented himself as the new leader of the station, and introduced employees from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation.

“I believe that at the time when they came,” Kramarenko told the paper, “they planned to be there permanently, they planned to take control for a long time.”

A sign of things to come?

Even before the occupation, the Chernobyl station had a post-apocalyptic air. It is situated in a dense forest, swarming with mosquitoes and gnats. Pripyat, the city where employees lived before the disaster, now stands empty and is being reconquered by nature.

A huge steel and concrete sarcophagus covers the site of the meltdown. Under its dome, called the New Safe Confinement, lie 200 tons of lava-like nuclear fuel, 30 tons of highly contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium that continue to release high levels of radiation.

Chernobyl Nuclear power plant 2019 The Chernobyl Nuclear power plant and the arch of the New Safe Confinement in 2019. Credit: Getty Images

Yet while Rosatom may have failed to keep hold of Chernobyl, the same cannot be said about Ukraine’s embattled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — Europe’s largest such facility — which once supplied a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

Since October of 2022, Moscow claims that it now controls the plant — a claim not honored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Association, to say nothing of Kyiv.

From then on, Rosatom has begun flooding the Zaporizhzhia plant with Russian staff that it has transferred from its own Kalinin nuclear plant, 545 kilometers across the front to the northeast.

But while Russia asserts the six-reactor facility has been taken over as a protective measure, there is little to suggest that the joining of Russian and Ukrainian workforces is going smoothly.  Only about 2,000 Ukrainian staff members still work at the plant, out of 11,000 before the war.

Indeed, much of Rosatom’s effort to assert itself at the plant has involved arresting and torturing Ukrainian workers opposed to the occupation as it toils to link Zaporizhzhia with the Russian electricity grid.

The plant, which lies on the south side of the Dnipro River next to the nuclear plant’s home city of Enerhodar, is on the front line of the war. Ukrainian troops are just a few of kilometers to the north, on the far bank of the Dnipro, while Russians are holed up in the power plant.Anxieties are high that the area could see renewed fighting in any Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine accuses the Russians of using the plant as a shield, hoping that the danger of causing a nuclear accident will keep Ukrainian soldiers from firing on them — the first time an atomic reactor has been put in such a position.

“They know Ukrainian troops would not dare to fire back. The nuclear power plant is a perfect hiding place from Ukrainian artillery,” Oleksiy Melnychuk, a former worker at the plant who fled from Enerhodar last July to Ukrainian-held territory, told The Russians in turn accuse the Ukrainians of ignoring safety protocols and firing on areas near the plant.

The IAEA has inspectors on site and has been trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope to establish a non-military safety zone around the plant. While Moscow says it is keen to do so, Kyiv is leery of any step that could lend legitimacy to the Russian occupation.

Late last month, IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi dropped the idea, and instead is now pushing for both sides to take steps to ensure that the plant isn’t attacked.

Over the last year, four of the station’s six VVER reactors have been put into a cold shutdown to minimize the risk of an accident, while two have been restarted to produce low levels of power to keep the plant operational. The facility needs access to electricity to ensure reactor cooling and other safety functions. However, its links to the Ukrainian grid have been cut six times since last March, forcing the ZNPP to rely on diesel-powered generators for emergency backup power — a situation that IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has referred to as “rolling the dice.”

“And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out,” he added.

Still, even as events deteriorate, there is little the world can do but watch.

Even Grossi — who heads the world’s most respected nuclear power diplomacy body — has admitted as much. During a meeting of the IAEA’s  35-member board of governors last month, Grossi castigated his colleagues for “complacency” after the latest spate of airstrikes had again cut off Zaporizhzhia’s access to grid electricity.

“What are we doing to prevent this [from] happening?“ a flabbergasted Grossi asked the board. ”We are the IAEA, we are meant to care about nuclear safety.”

Even so, aspirations of pushing out the Russians among plant workers remain high.

“We still hope de-occupation is possible,” Melnychuk told “You can’t even imagine how ready we all are to return and let our colleagues, working under tremendous pressure and fear, to finally have some rest.”

Unfortunately, the state of Chernobyl offers the clearest glimpse of what they may find if — or when — that time comes.


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