Russian forces capture Chernobyl power plant; media expresses concern over possibility of radioactive leak from site
02/25/2022 // Arsenio Toledo // Views

Ukrainian officials have confirmed that Russian forces have captured the decommissioned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and parts of the surrounding areas, including the infrastructure housing nuclear waste and other radioactive materials. The Ukrainian government is warning that continued conflict in the area could theoretically lead to radioactive material leaking from the site.

Close to the Belarus-Ukraine border is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a wide area of around 1,000 square miles that was almost entirely evacuated due to the dangers posed on the people that used to live within the zone following the 1986 Chernobyl radioactive disaster. The area is still leaking radioactive material even after 36 years.

When Russian forces moved into Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, it launched an offensive on multiple fronts, including by going through Belarus to enter northern Ukraine. Reports immediately came in that Russian troops assaulted the area and captured it, including the old power plant, according to sources within the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy called the Russian attack on Chernobyl "a declaration of war against the whole of Europe."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal confirmed that Russian forces have occupied the area. "Unfortunately, I have to say that, as of now, the Chernobyl zone, the so-called exclusion zone, and all Chernobyl facilities have been taken under control by Russian armed groups," said Shmyhal in a news briefing after an extraordinary cabinet meeting in the capital of Kyiv, 60 miles to the south of Chernobyl.


"According to the leadership of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, there are no victims at the moment," he added.

Sources informed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Russian forces are currently using the Chernobyl area as a staging ground in its attempt to take over Kyiv.

Another source said the Kremlin wants to take over the nuclear reactor as a signal for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization not to interfere militarily.

Fighting around Chernobyl could cause a radioactive leak

The Chernobyl power plant was decommissioned several years after the 1986 nuclear accident. The reactor that exploded has been covered up with a protective shelter to prevent any radiation from leaking. But multiple Ukrainian officials and other analysts have warned that the conflict puts the integrity of the infrastructure housing radioactive materials at risk.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the office of the Ukrainian president, warned that Europe might be threatened if the Russian attack results in a radioactive leak.

"It is impossible to say the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is safe after a totally pointless attack by the Russians," said Podolyak. "This is one of the most serious threats to Europe today."

Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko also warned that the Russian attack could result in the entirety of Europe being covered in radioactive fallout.

"If as a result of the [Russian] artillery strikes the nuclear waste storage facility is destroyed, the radioactive dust may cover the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and the EU countries," he said.

Igor Novikov, a former adviser to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, warned that the threat to Europe from a potential leak in Chernobyl needs to be taken seriously.

"I'd say first and foremost we need help explaining the dangers to our friends in the West," he said during an interview with Al Jazeera. "I mean, Ukraine has 15 active nuclear reactors and nuclear waste in Chernobyl. One mortar miss and everyone in Europe is facing a major nuclear catastrophe."

"I'd ask everyone to speak with your political representatives, your friends and peers. Everyone should understand that it's not only about Ukraine, the whole of Europe is in major danger."

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine has already informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that all nuclear facilities in the exclusion zone were taken over by Russian forces.

The agency did not inform the IAEA of any destruction at the site. However, a Ukrainian official familiar with the situation at Chernobyl claimed that Russian shelling has damaged a radioactive waste repository, leading to a slight increase in radiation levels in the immediate area.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said it is following the situation "with grave concern" and has called for "maximum restraint"  to avoid any action that may put Ukraine's nuclear facilities at risk.

"It is of vital importance that the safe and secure operations of the nuclear facilities in that zone should not be affected or disrupted in any way," said Grossi.

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