Why does Russia want the Chernobyl nuclear power plant?

Russia using the fastest invasion route from Belarus, western military analysts say

The giant protective dome built over the sarcophagus covering the destroyed fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. AFP

The Chernobyl power plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, has been captured by Russian forces, according to an adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office.

“It is impossible to say the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe after a totally pointless attack by the Russians,” Mykhailo Podolyak said on Thursday. “This is one of the most serious threats in Europe today.”

Staff at the Chernobyl plant have been “taken hostage”, Alyona Shevtsova, adviser to the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Facebook.

The White House said it was outraged by reports of the detentions.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence issued an update, saying that although the plant was most “likely captured,” the country’s forces had halted Russia’s advance towards Chernihiv and that it was unlikely that Russia had achieved its planned day-one military objectives.

Russian and Ukrainian forces fought on Thursday for control of Chernobyl, the still radioactive site, scene of the 1986 disaster and a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted before the defunct nuclear power plant was captured by Russian forces.

Why does Chernobyl matter so much?

Why would anyone want an inoperative power plant surrounded by miles of radioactive land?

The answer is geography: Chernobyl is on the shortest route from Belarus to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and so runs along a logical line of attack for the Russian forces invading Ukraine.

Western military analysts said Russia, by seizing Chernobyl, was simply using the fastest invasion route from Belarus — an ally of Moscow and a staging ground for Russian troops — to Kiev.

An abandoned carousel in a park in the ghost town of Pripyat, close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. AP

“It was the quickest way from A to B,” said James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

Jack Keane, a former chief of the US Army staff, said Chernobyl “doesn’t have any military significance” but sits on the shortest route from Belarus to Kiev, the target of a Russian decapitation strategy to oust the Ukrainian government.

Mr Keane called the route one of four axes Russian forces used to invade Ukraine, including a second vector from Belarus, an advance south into the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and a push north out of Russian-controlled Crimea to the city of Kherson.

The combined offensives amounted to the biggest attack on a European state since the Second World War.

Part of the plan

Taking Chernobyl was part of the plan, and a senior Ukrainian official said it was captured on Thursday by Russian forces, although a senior US defence official said the US could not confirm this.

The fourth reactor at Chernobyl, 108km north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, exploded in April 1986 during a botched safety test, sending clouds of radiation billowing across much of Europe and reaching the eastern US.

Servicemen in early February, 2022 take part in joint tactical and special exercises in the ghost city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl nuclear power plant. AFP

The radioactive strontium, caesium and plutonium mainly affected Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, as well as parts of Russia and Europe. Estimates for the numbers of direct and indirect deaths from the disaster vary from the low thousands to as many as 93,000 additional cancer deaths worldwide.

Soviet authorities initially sought to cover up the disaster and did not immediately admit that there had been an explosion, tarnishing the image of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost policies for greater openness in Soviet society.

The catastrophe was widely seen as contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union just a few years later.

What happens now?

Mr Acton said Russia’s capture of Chernobyl on Thursday was not to protect it from further damage, saying Ukraine’s four active nuclear power plants present a greater risk than Chernobyl, which sits within a vast exclusion zone approximately the size of Luxembourg.

A makeshift cover, or sarcophagus, was built within six months of the disaster to cover the stricken reactor and protect the environment from radiation. In November 2016, a so-called new safe confinement was moved over the old sarcophagus.

“Obviously an accident within Chernobyl would be a big issue. But precisely because of the exclusion zone, it probably wouldn’t impinge on Ukrainian civilians very much,” Mr Acton said.

Ukraine’s four operational nuclear power plants are running safely and there has been no destruction at the remaining waste and other facilities at Chernobyl, the UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday, citing Ukraine’s nuclear regulator.

Mr Acton said Ukraine’s other reactors are not in exclusion zones and they contain nuclear fuel that is a lot more radioactive. “The risks of fighting around them are significantly higher.”

Updated: February 25, 2022, 10:31 AM
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