Russian mistakes in Chernobyl: “They came and did what they wanted.”

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine – The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, one of the most toxic places on Earth, was not the best option, as a springboard for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. But that did not seem to bother the Russian generals who had captured the site in the early stages of the war.

“We told them not to do this, it’s dangerous, but they just ignored us,” Valery Semyonov, chief safety engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear site, said in an interview.

Apparently undeterred by safety concerns, Russian forces pounded the ground with bulldozers and tanks, digging trenches and bunkers – exposing themselves to potentially harmful doses of radiation lingering beneath the surface.

On a visit to the recently liberated nuclear plant, which was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, winds blew swirls of dust along roads, and scenes of disregard for safety were everywhere, although Ukrainian nuclear officials say it didn’t. A large radioactive leak due to the Russian military occupation for a month.

At just one trench-digging site a few hundred meters outside Chernobyl, the Russian army has dug an intricate labyrinth of sunken passages and bunkers. Nearby sat an abandoned armored personnel carrier.

Apparently the soldiers had been camping 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.

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

But he said it appears that Russian nuclear experts do not have much influence over the military’s leaders. The military men seemed more preoccupied with planning the attack on Kyiv, and then they failed, using Chernobyl as an escape route into Belarus for their poorly attacked forces.

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

The excavation was not the only case of reckless treatment of a site so toxic that it still holds the potential to spread radiation beyond Ukraine’s borders.

In a particularly unwise act, a Russian soldier from a chemical, biological and nuclear protection unit picked up a source of cobalt-60 at a waste storage site with his bare hands, exposing himself to so much radiation in a few seconds that Mr. . He said it was not clear what happened to the man.

The most troubling moment, Mr. Semyonov said, came in mid-March, when a cooling trough storing spent nuclear fuel rods containing much more radioactive material than was dispersed in the 1986 catastrophe lost power. Ukrainians worried that A fire would break out if water boiled that cooled the fuel rods, exposing them to the air, although experts quickly dismissed this possibility. “They underscore potential worst-case scenarios, but they’re not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Experts say the biggest danger in prolonged power outages is that hydrogen generated from spent fuel can build up and explode. Bruno Charion, laboratory director at CRIIRAD, a French group that monitors radiation risks, cited a 2008 study of the Chernobyl site suggesting this could happen within about 15 days.

The march to Kyiv began on the west bank of the Dnipro River and ended in Chernobyl of the 31st and 36th armies of the Russian army, which traveled with auxiliary forces of special forces and Chechen fighters.

The formation set out for Ukraine on February 24, fought for a month in the outskirts of Kyiv and then withdrew, leaving in its wake burnt armored vehicles, deaths in the war, widespread destruction and evidence of human rights abuses, including hundreds of corpses of civilians in the streets of the town of Bucha.

While withdrawing from Chernobyl, Russian forces blew up a bridge in the exclusion zone and planted a dense maze of anti-personnel mines, detonating wires and booby traps around the defunct station. The Ukrainian government agency that runs the site said two Ukrainian soldiers stepped on mines last week.

In a strange final sign of the unit’s adventures, Ukrainian soldiers have found discarded electronic devices and goods on the roads in the Chernobyl region. These were apparently looted from cities deep in Ukraine and were disposed of for reasons unclear in the final withdrawal. Journalists found one washing machine on the shoulder of a road outside Chernobyl.

The staff of the Exclusion Zone Administration Agency stationed in Chernobyl suffered from the Russian occupation, but nothing comes close to the barbarism to which civilians in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv were subjected to by Russian forces.

The Russians came in seemingly endless columns on the first day of the war, said Natasha Seloshenko, 45, a cafeteria cook serving nuclear power workers. She was watching warily from a side street.

“There was a sea of ​​vehicles,” she said. “They came in waves through the district, quickly driving towards Kyiv.”

There was little or no fighting in the area, to her knowledge. Only armored columns passed through.

During the occupation, Russian soldiers searched the homes of technicians, nuclear engineers, firefighters and support staff in the city of Chernobyl. “They took valuables” from the apartments, she said, but there was little to no violence.

The workers tried to warn the Russians about the dangers of radiation, but to no avail.

Background radiation in most of the 18-mile restricted area around the nuclear plant, after 36 years, poses little risk and is roughly equivalent to a high-altitude flight. But in unseen hot spots, some covering an acre or two, and some a few square yards, radiation can rise to thousands of times higher than normal ambient levels.

Mr. Charion, the nuclear expert, said a soldier in such a spot would be exposed hourly to what experts consider a safe limit for an entire year. The most dangerous isotopes in the soil are cesium-137, strontium-90 and various isotopes of plutonium. He said the days or weeks spent in these areas carry a high risk of developing cancer.

Throughout the region, the radioactive particles settled in the soil at depths ranging from a few inches to a foot. They pose little threat if left underground, where their half-lives will harmlessly end for decades or hundreds of years.

Until the Russian invasion, the main threat this pollution posed was absorption in moss and trees that could burn in wildfires, spread toxins in smoke, or through birds eating radioactive insects living on the ground.

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

At one excavated site, Russian troops had dug a bunker out of the sandy side of a road block and left piles of rubbish – food casings, discarded shoes, a black cooking pot – indicating that they had lived in the underground space for a long time.

Nearby, a bulldozer scraped the topsoil to build bulkheads for artillery positions and a half-dozen pits.

The surrounding forest had recently burned, indicating a fire broke out in the area during the Russian occupation, adding radioactive smoke to the exposure of Russian soldiers, along with dust from the stricken land.

The Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, issued a statement Thursday saying that the agency had not been able to confirm reports of radiation exposure to Russian soldiers in the area or make an independent assessment of radiation levels at the site. He said the agency’s robotic radiation sensors at Chernobyl had been out of order for more than a month.

Katerina Pavlova, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Chernobyl Region Administration Agency, said the Ukrainian government’s radiation monitoring devices stopped working on the first day of the war. She said that readings from satellites showed a slight rise in radiation in some areas after the Russian occupation.

Ms Pavlova said armored vehicles that operate on pedals, rather than wheels, pose the primary risk to radiological safety in a wider area, moving radioactive soil and spreading it to regions of Belarus and Russia as they withdraw. “The next person who comes in could be a contaminated one,” she said.

While the five-day power outage has not led to any disasters, it continues to cause enormous anxiety among plant operators, said Sergey McCloch, the shift supervisor who was interviewed at the nuclear plant Thursday night.

Standby generators that have been running require about 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. McCloch said that in the early days, Russian officers assured factory employees that they would have enough fuel, from trucked supplies for armored vehicles in combat on the outskirts of Kyiv. But by the fifth day, with the military having well-documented logistical problems, the officers said they would no longer supply diesel.

“There is not enough fuel for the front,” they said, and that the power cable to Belarus should be used to draw electricity from the Belarusian grid to cool the waste trough instead.

Mr. Semyonov, the chief safety engineer, described the threat to cut off diesel supplies to the generators as a “blackmail” to force the Belarusian authorities to solve the problem. Whatever happened, electricity was restored in time and nuclear fuel never came close to overheating.

In general, digging trenches and other suspicious activities posed a much less danger than the waste basin, and most of that to the Russian soldiers themselves, said Mr. Semyonov, adding sarcastically: “We invite them back to dig more trenches here, if they want.”

Contribute to reporting William J from New York.

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