Russian Blunders in Chernobyl: ‘They Came and Did Whatever They Wanted’

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — As the setting for an assault on the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, one of the world’s most toxic places, was probably not the best option. But that didn’t seem to bother the Russian generals who took over the siege in the early stages of the war.

“We told them not to do it, that it was dangerous, but they ignored us,” Valeriy Simyonov, the Chernobyl nuclear site’s chief safety engineer, said in an interview.

Seemingly undeterred by security concerns, Russian forces trampled the grounds with bulldozers and tanks, dug trenches and bunkers, and exposed themselves to potentially damaging doses of radiation that lingered below the surface.

On a visit to the recently liberated nuclear station, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, the wind whipped up dust devils along the roads and there were scenes of disregard for safety everywhere, though Ukrainian nuclear officials say no major radiation leak was triggered by the month-long Russian military occupation.

At just one sprawling trench site a few hundred meters from the city of Chernobyl, the Russian military had excavated an elaborate maze of walkways and sunken bunkers. An abandoned armored personnel carrier was nearby.

Apparently the soldiers had camped for weeks in the radioactive forest. While international nuclear safety experts say they haven’t confirmed any cases of radiation sickness among soldiers, cancers and other potential health problems associated with radiation exposure may not develop until decades later.

Mr Simyonov said the Russian military had deployed officers from a nuclear, biological and chemical unit, as well as experts from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, who consulted with Ukrainian scientists.

But Russian nuclear experts appeared to have little influence over army commanders, he said. The military seemed more concerned with planning the assault on kyiv and, after it failed, using Chernobyl as an escape route to Belarus for its battered troops.

“They came and did whatever they wanted” in the area around the station, Simyonov said. Despite the efforts of him and other Ukrainian nuclear engineers and technicians who remained on site during the occupation, working day and night and unable to leave except for a shift change in late March, the entrenchment continued.

The earthworks were not the only case of recklessness in dealing with a site so toxic that it still has the potential to spread radiation far beyond Ukraine’s borders.

In a particularly ill-advised move, a Russian soldier from a chemical, biological, and nuclear protection unit picked up a cobalt-60 source at a waste storage site with his bare hands, exposing himself to so much radiation in a few seconds that he went out of his mind. the scale of a Geiger counter, Simyonov said. It was not clear what happened to the man, he said.

The most worrying moment, Simyonov said, came in mid-March, when power was cut to a cooling pool that stores used nuclear fuel rods that contain many times more radioactive material than was dispersed in the 1986 disaster. That raised concerns among Ukrainians of a fire if the water that cools the fuel rods evaporates, exposing them to the air, though experts quickly dismissed that possibility. “They are emphasizing worst case scenarios, which are possible but not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The biggest risk in a prolonged power outage, experts say, was that hydrogen generated from spent fuel could build up and explode. Bruno Chareyron, laboratory director of CRIIRAD, a French group that monitors radiation risks, cited a 2008 study of the Chernobyl site that suggests this could happen within about 15 days.

The march to kyiv on the western bank of the Dnipro River began and ended in Chernobyl for the 31st and 36th Combined Arms Armies of the Russian Army, who traveled with an auxiliary special forces and ethnic Chechen fighters.

The formation stormed Ukraine on February 24, fought for nearly a month in the suburbs of kyiv, and then withdrew, leaving in its wake burned armored vehicles, its own war dead, widespread destruction and evidence of human rights abuses. , including hundreds of bodies of civilians in the streets of the city of Bucha.

While withdrawing from Chernobyl, Russian troops blew up a bridge in the exclusion zone and planted a dense maze of antipersonnel mines, tripwires and booby traps around the defunct station. Two Ukrainian soldiers stepped on mines last week, according to the Ukrainian government agency that runs the site.

In a rare final sign of the unit’s misadventures, Ukrainian soldiers found discarded appliances and electronics on roads in the Chernobyl zone. These were apparently looted from cities deeper within the Ukraine and abandoned for reasons unclear in the final withdrawal. Reporters found a washing machine on the shoulder of a road outside the city of Chernobyl.

Employees of the Chernobyl-based exclusion zone management agency suffered under Russian occupation, but nothing approaching the barbarity Russian forces committed against civilians in Bucha and other towns around kyiv.

The Russians had arrived in seemingly endless columns on the first day of the war, said Natasha Siloshenko, 45, a cook at a cafeteria that caters to nuclear workers. She had watched, warily, from a side street.

“There was a sea of ​​vehicles,” he said. “They came in waves through the area, driving quickly towards kyiv.”

There was little to no fighting in the area, as far as she could tell. The armored columns simply passed through.

During the occupation, Russian soldiers searched the apartments of nuclear engineers and technicians, firefighters and support personnel in the city of Chernobyl. “Valuable items were taken” from the apartments, he said, but there was little violence.

The workers tried to warn the Russians about the risks of radiation, without success.

Background radiation in most of the 18-mile Exclusion Zone around the nuclear plant, after 36 years, poses little risk and is roughly equivalent to a high-altitude airplane flight. But in unseen hot spots — some covering an acre or two, others just a few square feet — radiation can soar to thousands of times normal ambient levels.

A soldier in such a location would be exposed every hour to what experts consider a safe limit for an entire year, said Chareyron, the nuclear expert. The most dangerous isotopes in the soil are caesium 137, strontium 90, and various isotopes of plutonium. Days or weeks spent in these areas carry a high risk of causing cancer, he said.

Throughout the area, radioactive particles have settled into the ground to a depth of a few inches to a foot. They pose little threat if left underground, where their half-life is mostly harmless for decades to hundreds of years.

Until the Russian invasion, the main threat posed by this contamination was its absorption into mosses and trees that can burn in forest fires, spreading the poisons in the form of smoke or through birds that eat radioactive ground-dwelling insects.

“We told them, ‘This is the zone, you can’t go to certain places,’” Siloshenko said the workers had told the Russians. “They ignored us.”

In an entrenched position, Russian troops dug a bunker into the sandy side of a road embankment and left mounds of rubbish (food wrappers, discarded boots, a blackened pot), suggesting they had lived in the underground space for a extended time. .

Nearby, a bulldozer had scraped away the topsoil to build berms for artillery emplacements and half a dozen trenches.

The surrounding forest had recently burned, suggesting that a fire had swept through the area during the Russian occupation, adding radioactive smoke to the exposure of Russian soldiers, along with dust from the ground being stirred up.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi issued a statement Thursday saying the agency was unable to confirm reports of radiation-sick Russian soldiers in the area or make an independent assessment of radiation levels in the area. the place. The agency’s automated radiation sensors at Chernobyl have been inoperative for more than a month, he said.

Ukrainian government radiation monitors stopped working on the first day of the war, said Kateryna Pavlova, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Chernobyl Zone Management Agency. Satellite readings, she said, showed slightly elevated radiation in some areas after the Russian occupation.

Armored vehicles running on treads, rather than wheels, pose the main risk to radiation safety over a wider area, churning up radioactive soil and spreading it across areas of Belarus and Russia as they retreat, Pavlova said. “The next person who comes in may be contaminated,” she said.

While the five-day power outage did not cause any disaster, it was a source of enormous anxiety among plant operators, said Sergei Makluk, a shift supervisor interviewed at the nuclear station on Thursday night.

The backup generators that have been activated require about 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. In the early days, Russian officials assured plant employees that they would have enough fuel, drawn from supplies being trucked for armored vehicles in the fighting in the kyiv suburbs, Makluk said. But on the fifth day, with the military’s well-documented logistical problems, officials said they would no longer supply the diesel.

“They said: ‘There is not enough fuel for the front,’” and that instead a power cable leading to Belarus should be used to draw electricity from the Belarusian grid to cool the tailings pool.

Mr. Simyonov, the chief security engineer, characterized the threat to stop the supply of diesel to the generators as “blackmail” to force the Belarusian authorities to solve the problem. However it happened, the electricity was restored in time and the nuclear fuel never came close to overheating.

Overall, trench digging and other dubious activities posed much less risk than the tailings pool, and most of that to the Russian soldiers themselves, Simyonov said, adding wryly: “We invite you to dig again. more trenches here. if they want.”

William J. Broad contributed reporting from New York.

Leave a Comment