With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nuclear facilities have been caught up in the midst of conventional warfare for the first time in history. That nightmare scenario is one that few of the industry’s players had anticipated, says an article published in France24.
In Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, Russian forces represent a lingering threat to the most basic rules of nuclear security.
On the way to Chernobyl along the Dnipro River, a two-hour drive from Kyiv, the imprint left by Russia’s occupation remains, two months after an ordeal that lasted from the February 24 invasion until March 31.
Most bridges have been destroyed and our driver warns us to stay on the pavement as landmines lurk beyond.
After the invasion, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl – a 30-kilometre radius around the notorious nuclear plant near Ukraine’s border with Belarus – made global headlines once again.
For some 35 days, Chernobyl personnel had to abide the Russian soldiers who seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent in a nuclear site.
“They had a very low level of knowledge. They didn’t understand that the soil here is contaminated, that one mustn’t touch it, and certainly not dig trenches in it,” recounted Ruslan, a technician at the plant, waiting for his bus into work.
“And yet that’s what they did and it spurred an increased level of radioactivity at the site. Happily, management handled the situation well.”
Chernobyl shift chief Valentin Geïko became a national hero after he was able to tell various media how he resisted the orders of Russian officers with no scientific knowledge and with ambiguous intentions.
Geïko’s sense of humour and his determination helped the plant’s personnel cope while they were held hostage for 20 days, until Russian soldiers finally allowed their colleagues in to relieve them of their duties.
With Russia’s invasion, Chernobyl had the world’s nuclear experts in a cold sweat all over again. Deactivated sensors, troop movements on contaminated soil, and a plant disconnected from the electrical network from March 9 to 14 had specialists fearing the worst.
Sergei, another plant employee, can still hardly believe it, after seeing “the barbarians” turn up inside the exclusion zone that has been insulating the damaged reactor since 1986. “They pillaged everything, broke technical material, equipment. But happily, they didn’t damage the cooling system, which could have provoked a catastrophe.”
Indeed, the Chernobyl nuclear site remains active 36 years after the worst nuclear accident in history. The dismantling of the site’s four reactors is still in progress and, most importantly, some 22,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies are being kept in storage pools that require constant cooling.
Another major activity at the site is the surveillance of the 100-plus metre sarcophagus completed in 2019, which isolates the reactor that “melted” during the 1986 disaster.
In Zaporizhzhia, a menacing and disconcerting occupation
While Russian soldiers have now left the Chernobyl site, allowing the plant to return to a level of risk deemed acceptable by international standards, the Zaporizhzhia plant’s occupation, ongoing since March 4, has made for some surreal and worrisome scenes on the other side of the country.
The images of artillery fire targeting buildings inside the plant’s enclosure spurred major concern, although no nuclear incident came of it.
Ukrainian authorities said 500 soldiers settled in at the site, with 50-odd military vehicles, including tanks, weapons and explosives of all sorts; an arsenal entirely incompatible with the most basic security rules inside the walls of a nuclear facility.
“Nobody had ever imagined that one could open fire on a nuclear power plant, the way the Russians did in Zaporizhzhia,” said Petro Kotin, president of Energoatom, the public company in charge of nuclear energy in Ukraine.
“Today, they are using it as a military base because the perimeter is well protected by walls and video surveillance. They also use the cafeteria and the canteen to better the daily life of their soldiers,” he said thoughtfully. “We have the impression that they themselves don’t understand the objective of occupying the plant. They came, they occupied and they didn’t really know what to do with it.”
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