Nuclear chief: Russian seizure of Chernobyl risked an accident


A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team pulls suitcases with equipment as he arrives with others at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Tuesday, 26 April 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)


Thirty-six years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Tuesday that Russian troops risked causing an accident with their “very, very dangerous” seizure of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in Ukraine.

Wearing a blue IAEA jacket and standing under an orange umbrella during the rainfall outside the damaged nuclear power plant, the agency’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said that while radiation levels are normal, the situation is still “not stable”. Nuclear authorities must “stay alert”, he said.

Russian troops entered the radiation-contaminated Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in February on their way to the Ukrainian capital. They withdrew late last month when Russia withdrew its forces from areas near kyiv and focused on fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Since then, the site has returned to Ukrainian hands and interrupted communications have been restored.

Ukrainian officials say Russian occupiers held factory workers at gunpoint for a marathon shift lasting more than a month, with staff sleeping on tables and eating only twice a day. day.

Grossi praised workers for mitigating potential risks during the occupation, including power outages.

“I don’t know if we were very close to disaster, but the situation was absolutely abnormal and very, very dangerous,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, noting the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on Twitter, said “not everyone realized” the dangers of nuclear power.

“Now Russia’s actions in Ukrainian nuclear power plants threaten humanity with another catastrophe.”

An explosion and fire on April 26, 1986 in Chernobyl sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s last stumbling years. The international community, including Russia, has spent billions to stabilize and secure the area.

The unit where the explosion and fire took place was covered with a state-of-the-art envelope. The dangers at the plant are permanent, however, as spent nuclear fuel rods require round-the-clock maintenance. Fuel comes from the plant’s four reactors, all of which are now shut down.

Russian forces continue to hold an operating nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, in southern Ukraine. In early March, the fighting damaged the Zaporizhzhia factory training center.

An Associated Press reporter who visited Chernobyl this month saw evidence that Russian soldiers had dug trenches in the wooded Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the early hours of the invasion, brewing a highly contaminated soil.

IAEA team members who were at the site on Tuesday carrying out repairs and assessments carried black suitcases from their pickup trucks to the Chernobyl buildings. They were bringing dosimeters and other radiation monitoring equipment, Grossi said.

“There is a lot of work to do after the occupation of this factory,” he said. “We need to do repair work so that we can restore the connectivity that we have with Vienna, so that we can provide good information to the Ukrainian people, to the rest of the world.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the world’s nuclear watchdog, is based in the Austrian capital.

During the Russian occupation, Chernobyl lost its normal electricity supply. Plant workers relied on diesel generators to support the critical work of circulating water to cool spent nuclear fuel.

When asked if the dangers posed by the Russian occupation were similar to those that followed the initial Chernobyl accident, Grossi replied: “On that occasion you had an explosion, you had a working reactor . The situation was completely different. In this case, we had a nuclear safety situation which was not normal, which could have developed into an accident.

Responding to public concerns about the risks of nuclear power during wars, Grossi told reporters that the problem was “not nuclear power. The problem is war.


Anna reported from Lviv, Ukraine.


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Lynn A. Saleh