Russian errors in Chernobyl: "They came and did what they wanted"

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — As staging ground for an assault on the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, one of the most to...


CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — As staging ground for an assault on the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, one of the most toxic places in the world, was probably not the best choice. But that didn’t seem to bother the Russian generals who took over the site at the start of the war.

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

Seemingly undeterred by security concerns, Russian forces marched on the ground with bulldozers and tanks, digging trenches and bunkers – and exposing themselves to potentially harmful doses of radiation lingering below the surface.

During a visit to the recently liberated nuclear power plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, the wind blew whirlwinds of dust along the roads, and scenes of disregard for safety were everywhere, although the Ukrainian nuclear officials say no major radioactive leaks have been triggered by the month-long Russian military occupation.

At a single site of vast trenches a few hundred meters from the town of Chernobyl, the Russian army had dug an elaborate maze of walkways and sunken bunkers. An abandoned armored personnel carrier sat nearby.

The soldiers had apparently camped for weeks in the radioactive forest. While international nuclear safety experts say they have not 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, the Russian nuclear energy company, who consulted with the Ukrainian scientists.

But Russian nuclear experts seemed to have little sway over army commanders, he said. The military seemed more preoccupied with planning the assault on kyiv and, after that failure, using Chernobyl as an escape route to Belarus for their badly maimed troops.

“They came and did what they wanted” in the area around the station, Mr Simyonov said. Despite his efforts and those of other Ukrainian nuclear engineers and technicians who remained at the site during the occupation, working around the clock and unable to leave except for a shift change in late March, rooting continued.

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

In a particularly misguided action, a Russian soldier from a chemical, biological and nuclear protection unit retrieved a cobalt-60 source from a waste storage site with his bare hands, exposing himself to so much radiation in seconds that it came off the scale of a Geiger counter, Mr Simyonov said. It’s unclear what happened to the man, he said.

The most worrying moment, Mr Simyonov said, came in mid-March, when power was cut to a cooling pool that stores used nuclear fuel rods containing far more radioactive material than those scattered during of the 1986 disaster. This raised concerns among Ukrainians of a fire if the water cooling the fuel rods boiled, exposing them to the air, although this prospect was quickly rejected by experts. “They emphasize worst-case scenarios, which are possible but not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lymanreactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Experts said the biggest risk of a prolonged power outage was that the hydrogen generated by the spent fuel could build up and explode. Bruno Chareyron, laboratory director at CRIIRAD, a French group that monitors radiological risks, cited a 2008 study from the Chernobyl site suggesting it could happen in about 15 days.

The march to Kyiv on the west bank of the Dnipro River began and ended in Chernobyl for the Russian Army’s 31st and 36th Combined Arms, which traveled with a special forces auxiliary and ethnic Chechen fighters.

The formation broke into Ukraine on February 24, fought for most of a month on the outskirts of kyiv, then retreated, leaving in its wake incinerated armored vehicles, its own war dead, widespread destruction and evidence of human rights violations, including hundreds of civilian bodies on the streets of Bucha town.

As they retreated from Chernobyl, Russian troops blew up a bridge in the exclusion zone and planted a dense maze of landmines, tripwires and booby traps around the old station. Two Ukrainian soldiers stepped on mines last week, according to the Ukrainian government agency that manages the site.

In a strange final sign of the unit’s misadventures, Ukrainian soldiers found abandoned electronic devices and devices on the roads of the Chernobyl zone. These were apparently looted from towns deeper inside Ukraine and discarded for unclear reasons in the final retreat. Journalists found a washing machine on a shoulder just outside the town of Chernobyl.

Employees of the Chernobyl-based Exclusion Zones Management Agency have suffered under the Russian occupation, but nothing approaching the barbarism inflicted on civilians in Bucha and other towns around kyiv by Russian forces.

Russians had come in seemingly endless columns on the first day of the war, said Natasha Siloshenko, 45, a cafeteria cook serving nuclear workers. She had watched, warily, from a side street.

“There was a sea of ​​vehicles,” she said. “They came in waves through the area, rolling rapidly towards Kyiv.”

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

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 the apartments, she said, but there was little violence.

The workers tried to warn the Russians about the radiological risks, to no avail.

Background radiation in most of the 18-mile exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant, after 36 years, poses little risk and is roughly equivalent to high-altitude airplane flight. But in unseen hotspots, some covering an acre or two, others just a few square meters, radiation can reach thousands of times normal ambient levels.

A soldier in such a location would be exposed hourly to what experts consider a safe limit for an entire year, said Mr Chareyron, the 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 pose a high cancer risk, he said.

Throughout the area, radioactive particles were deposited in the ground to a depth of a few centimeters to a foot. They pose little threat if left underground, where their half-life would be mostly harmless for decades or hundreds of years.

Until the Russian invasion, the main threat posed by this contamination was its absorption into mosses and trees which can burn in forest fires, spreading poisons in the smoke or by birds which eat radioactive insects living in the floor.

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

At a dug-in position, Russian troops had dug a bunker from the sandy side of a road embankment and left piles of rubbish – food wrappers, discarded boots, a blackened cooking pot – suggesting they had been living in the underground space for a prolonged time.

Nearby, a bulldozer had scraped away topsoil to build berms for artillery mounts and half a dozen foxholes.

The surrounding forest had recently burned, suggesting that a fire had swept through the area during the Russian occupation, adding radioactive smoke to the Russian soldiers’ exposure, as well as dust from disturbed ground.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi issued a statement on Thursday saying the agency had been unable to confirm reports of radiation sick Russian soldiers in the area. or to conduct an independent assessment of radiation levels at the site. 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, 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 are the main risk to radiation protection in a wider area, as they churn up radioactive soil and spread it across parts of Belarus and Russia during their retirement, Ms. Pavlova said. “The next person who arrives may be infected,” she said.

Although the five-day power outage did not lead to any disasters, it nevertheless caused enormous anxiety among plant operators, said Sergei Makluk, a shift manager interviewed at the nuclear plant on Thursday evening.

The emergency generators that have started require approximately 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. In the early days, Russian officers assured factory workers that they would have enough fuel, fired trucked supplies for armored vehicles during the fighting in the outskirts of kyiv, Makluk said. But on the fifth day, with the Army’s well-documented logistical problems, officers said they would no longer supply diesel.

“They said, ‘There is not enough fuel for the front,’ and that an electric cable leading to Belarus should be used to draw electricity from the Belarusian grid to cool the waste pool. in place.

Mr Simyonov, the chief security engineer, described the threat to cut off the supply of diesel to generators as “blackmail” to force the Belarusian authorities to solve the problem. Anyway, the electricity was restored in time and the nuclear fuel never came close to overheating.

Overall, the trenching and other questionable activities posed a far lower risk than the dumping ground, and most of that to the Russian soldiers themselves, Mr Simyonov said, adding wryly: “ We invite them to dig more trenches here, if they want.”

William J. Broad contributed reporting from New York.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Russian errors in Chernobyl: "They came and did what they wanted"
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