UN nuclear experts begin mission to Chernobyl next week

International experts expected at site of historic nuclear disaster within days

International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Grossi at a news conference in Vienna on Friday. Reuters
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The UN’s atomic energy agency says it will begin its mission to Chernobyl next week after Russian forces left the defunct power plant, more than a month after capturing it on the first day of the Ukrainian war.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said experts would arrive at the site in northern Ukraine in the coming days to carry out “technical work”. He said he would personally lead the mission.

He said the delivery of equipment – the nature of which he declined to reveal – to Ukraine was “a start” and a “structured set of activities” would begin next week.

“We are going to be there very, very soon because in Chernobyl there is a lot of work to be done,” he said in Vienna on Friday afternoon. “The plans are there and we are starting next week,” he said.

Russian troops stormed the Chernobyl decommissioned nuclear power station on February 24, the first day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and took over control of the site. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 is largely considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. Hundreds of people were killed and radioactive contamination spread west across Europe.

Mr Grossi, who recently returned from Ukraine and Russia where he held talks with officials, unveiled a multi-pronged plan aimed at averting nuclear disasters in Ukraine.

He agreed with officials the establishment of a rapid assistance mechanism which means a team would be on site “to assess and assist almost immediately” in the case of an emergency at a Ukrainian nuclear power station.

Mr Grossi said it is vital to have boots on the ground to ensure a quick reaction if something goes wrong. “It is in this sense that the presence of IAEA experts on site is important,” he said.

He said the Russians did not tell him why they had this week given up the Chernobyl plant more than a month after capturing it. He said he had read reports claiming Russian soldiers had suffered health complications typical of people who had come into contact with radioactive material, but said he could not verify the reports.

There had initially been a slightly higher level of radiation around Chernobyl after the invasion, probably due to the movement of military tanks, but the levels had since returned to normal, he said.

“When it comes to safeguards it is very important to be reminded that because there is this conflict … we have these plants, many of them running and the nuclear material is there and it needs to be verified. And there are activities guided or imposed by the operational needs of these facilities that must be verified, and in some cases, as it was the case for Chernobyl, remote monitoring capabilities have been interrupted.”

Earlier, Mr Grossi tweeted that the IAEA’s “assistance and support” mission to Chernobyl “will be the first in a series of such nuclear safety and security missions to Ukraine”.

Updated: April 01, 2022, 2:58 PM