CHERNOBYL, Ukraine – As the site of an attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, one of the most toxic places on earth, was probably not the best choice. But this did not seem to bother the Russian generals, who took over the site in the early stages of the war.
“We told them not to do it, that it is dangerous, but they ignored us,” said in an interview Valery Simyonov, chief safety engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Apparently unperturbed by security concerns, Russian forces trampled the area with bulldozers and tanks, dug trenches and bunkers – and were exposed to potentially harmful doses of radiation retained below the surface.
Visiting the recently liberated nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986, the wind blew swirls of dust on the roads and scenes of disregard for safety were everywhere, although Ukrainian nuclear officials say no major leakage of radiation from Russia’s Monthly Military Occupation.
In just one place with vast trenches a few hundred yards outside the city of Chernobyl, the Russian army had dug a complex maze of sunken paths and bunkers. An abandoned armored personnel carrier was sitting nearby.
The soldiers were apparently camping for weeks in the radioactive forest. While international nuclear safety experts say they have not confirmed a single case of radiation sickness among soldiers, cancer and other potential health problems related to radiation exposure may not develop until decades later.
Mr Simyonov said the Russian military had sent officers from the nuclear, biological and chemical units, as well as experts from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company, to consult with Ukrainian scientists.
But Russian nuclear experts do not appear to have much power over army commanders, he said. The military seemed more preoccupied with planning the attack on Kyiv and then failed, using Chernobyl as an escape route to Belarus for its heavily crushed troops.
“They came and did what they wanted” in the area around the station, said Mr. Simyonov. Despite the efforts of him and other Ukrainian nuclear engineers and technicians who remained at the site during the occupation, working around the clock and unable to leave except one shift at the end of March, the excavation continued.
Earthworks were not the only case of recklessness in treating an object so toxic that it still has the potential to spread radiation far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
In a particularly ill-considered operation, a Russian soldier from the Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Defense Department lifted a cobalt-60 source from a bare-handed waste storage site, exposing himself to so much radiation for a few seconds that he stepped off the Geiger counter , said Mr. Simyonov. It is unclear what happened to the man, he said.
The most worrying moment, Mr Simyonov said, occurred in mid-March, when electricity was cut off in a cooling pool that stores spent nuclear fuel rods, which contain many times more radioactive material than was dispersed in the 1986 crash. This raised fears among Ukrainians of a fire if the water cooling the fuel rods evaporated, exposing them to air, although this prospect was quickly rejected by experts. “They emphasize the worst-case scenarios that are possible, but not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Experts say the greater risk of prolonged power outages is that hydrogen generated from spent fuel could accumulate and explode. Bruno Charein, laboratory director at CRIIRAD, a French group that monitors radiation risks, cites a 2008 study at the Chernobyl site that suggests it could happen in about 15 days.
The march to Kyiv on the west bank of the Dnieper River began and ended in Chernobyl for the 31st and 36th General Armies of the Russian military, which traveled with support forces of special forces and ethnic Chechen fighters.
The formation invaded Ukraine on February 24, fought for most of the month in the suburbs of Kyiv and then withdrew, leaving behind burnt armored vehicles, their own victims of the war, widespread destruction and evidence of human rights violations. man, including hundreds of civilian bodies on the streets of Bucha.
As they withdrew from Chernobyl, Russian troops blew up a bridge in the exclusion zone and planted a dense maze of antipersonnel mines, wires and mine traps around the station. Two Ukrainian soldiers have stepped on mines in the past week, according to the Ukrainian government agency that manages the site.
A strange last sign of the accidents of the unit Ukrainian soldiers found discarded devices and electronic goods on the roads in the Chernobyl zone. They were apparently looted from cities deeper in Ukraine and dumped for unknown reasons during the last retreat. Reporters found a laundromat on the side of the road just outside Chernobyl.
Employees of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Management Agency have suffered under Russian occupation, but nothing comes close to the barbarism visited by Russian civilian forces in Bucha and other cities around Kyiv.
The Russians had come in seemingly endless columns on the first day of the war, said 45-year-old Natasha Siloshenko, a cook at a cafe serving nuclear workers. She had been watching carefully from a side street.
“There was a sea of vehicles,” she said. “They came in waves through the area, driving fast to Kyiv.
As far as she could tell, there was little or no battle in the area. The armored columns simply passed.
During the occupation, Russian soldiers searched the apartments of nuclear technicians and engineers, firefighters and support staff in the city of Chernobyl. “They took valuables” from apartments, she said, but there was little violence.
The workers tried to warn the Russians about the risks of radiation, but without success.
Background radiation in most of the 18-kilometer exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant, after 36 years, poses scarce risks and is roughly equivalent to flying at high altitudes. But in invisible hotspots, some covering an acre or two, others just a few square yards, radiation can rise to thousands of times normal environmental levels.
A soldier in such a place would be exposed every hour to what experts consider a safe border for a whole year, said Mr Chareiron, a nuclear expert. The most dangerous isotopes in the soil are cesium 137, strontium 90 and various isotopes of plutonium. Days or weeks spent in these areas carry a high risk of causing cancer, he said.
Across the area, radioactive particles have settled in the soil to a depth of several inches to a foot. They pose a small threat if left underground, where their half-lives will pass almost harmlessly for decades or hundreds of years.
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Until Russia’s invasion, the main threat from this contamination was its ingestion into mosses and trees that could burn in forest fires, spreading toxins in smoke or through birds that eat radioactive insects that inhabit the earth.
“We told them, ‘This is the area, you can’t go to certain places,'” Ms. Siloshenko said, the workers told the Russians. “They ignored us.”
At a dug-in position, Russian troops had buried a bunker on the sandy side of a road embankment, leaving piles of rubbish – food packaging, discarded boots, a blackened cooking vessel – suggesting they had lived in the underground for a long time.
Nearby, a bulldozer had scraped off the topsoil to build berms for artillery positions and half a dozen fox holes.
The surrounding forest had recently burned down, suggesting that the fire engulfed the area during the Russian occupation, adding radioactive smoke to the Russian soldiers’ exposure, along with dust from the disturbed land.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a statement Thursday saying the agency could not confirm reports of Russian soldiers suffering from radiation in the area or make an independent assessment of radiation levels in the area. object. The agency’s automated radiation sensors at the Chernobyl have not worked for more than a month, he said.
The Ukrainian government’s radiation monitors stopped working on the first day of the war, said Kateryna Pavlova, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Chernobyl Management Agency. Testimony from satellites, she said, showed slightly increased radiation in some areas after the Russian occupation.
Armored vehicles, which run on treads rather than on wheels, pose a major risk to radiation safety in a wider area, as they break up radioactive soil and spread it to areas of Belarus and Russia in retreat, Ms Pavlova said. “The next person to come can be infected,” she said.
As long as the five-day power outage did not lead to disasters, it was still a cause for great concern among the plant’s operators, said Sergei Makluk, shift supervisor, interviewed at the nuclear power plant on Thursday night.
The backup generators they put into operation require about 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. In the first days, Russian officers assured the plant’s employees that they would have enough fuel extracted from deliveries transported by armored vehicles during the fighting in the suburbs of Kyiv, Mr Makluk said. But on the fifth day, with well-documented logistical problems for the military, officers said they would no longer supply diesel.
“They said, ‘There is not enough fuel for the front,'” and that instead, a power cord leading to Belarus should be used to draw electricity from Belarus’ cooling pool network.
Mr Simyonov, chief safety engineer, described the threat of cutting off diesel supplies to generators as “blackmail” to force the Belarusian authorities to resolve the issue. However, it happened, the electricity was restored in time and the nuclear fuel never came close to overheating.
In general, digging trenches and other dubious activities pose a much lower risk than the waste basin and especially to the Russian soldiers themselves, Mr Simyonov said, adding ironically: “We invite them to dig more trenches here again if they want. “
The reporting was contributed by William J. Broad from New York.