Russia takes Chernobyl: nuclear safety fears in Ukraine after 'radiation increase'

High gamma levels recorded after troops seize site of 1986 nuclear disaster

The entombed Chernobyl plant on the horizon behind the abandoned town of Pripyat. Reuters

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

Ukraine said on Friday that radiation levels had increased in the Chernobyl exclusion zone after Russia seized the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

It added to concern about nuclear safety in Ukraine after the International Atomic Energy Agency urged troops to show “maximum restraint” around the country’s four operative reactors as well as at Chernobyl.

At the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone lie the remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986, unleashing a cloud of radioactive waste into Europe’s skies. Although they are entombed in concrete and steel, radiation levels are still high at the plant and a 30-kilometre radius around it is largely uninhabited.

Inside that zone, Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency and its delegation to the UN in Geneva said on Friday that gamma radiation was above control levels at a “significant number of observation points”.

That claim was supported by a monitoring group in Ukraine, Save Dnipro, whose online radiation map showed gamma ray levels on Friday far exceeding those in the days before Russia’s invasion.

Gamma radiation comes from decaying radioactive material and exposure to it can increase the risk of cancer. The nuclear agency suggested that the disturbance of soil by Russian troops might be to blame for the increase, although officials said it was difficult to investigate the causes because Ukraine had lost control of the area.

A British intelligence assessment backed up Ukraine’s claim that Russian troops had occupied the area on Thursday, in a move analysts said could be explained by Chernobyl’s geographic position between Kiev and the Russian border.

The White House separately condemned reports of hostages being taken at the plant and described Russia’s behaviour at Chernobyl as “incredibly alarming and greatly concerning”.

Russia’s Defence Ministry had earlier on Friday described radiation levels at the plant as normal and said its paratroopers would help to protect the site.

Nuclear experts said any release of the buried radioactive material at Chernobyl would probably require a concerted effort and said the risk might be just as high at currently operating reactors.

IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said the agency was gravely concerned by developments in Ukraine.

He said it was “appealing for maximum restraint to avoid any action that may put the country’s nuclear facilities at risk”. Ukrainian officials had offered assurances that the four operative plants were running smoothly, he said.

Ukraine disconnected its electricity grid from Russia’s on Thursday, in a move which the European Union said had been planned but had to be implemented earlier than expected.

On Chernobyl, Mr Grossi said it was “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”.

Exposure to small amounts of radiation is not fatal, and tourists sometimes visit the exclusion zone and the abandoned town of Pripyat. Some of the radioactive elements released four decades ago have decayed into nothing, but the isotopes Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 still linger today.

The most dangerous material on the site is a “lump in the basement of the reactor building,” said retired nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer, who said the danger from an explosion or attack at Chernobyl was small.

The 1986 accident was compounded by the failure of Soviet officials to come clean about what had happened. It emerged after high radiation levels were detected in Sweden.

Some people kept their children inside as far away as Western Europe. In Germany, the accident helped to spur the rise of an anti-nuclear movement that ultimately succeeded in getting atomic energy cut out of the power grid.

Updated: February 25, 2022, 2:07 PM