Ukrainian staff maintaining the decommissioned nuclear power plant at the site of the 1986 nuclear accident are hungry, exhausted and at increased risk of making errors while under the control of Russian military occupiers, officials with Ukraine’s main nuclear regulatory agency say.
A relative of one of the workers tells VOA that the staff, who have now been manning the facility for a week without relief, are without clean clothes and blankets and are provided only one meal a day. The Russian soldiers guarding them are also short of supplies and have been scavenging in local villages for food, according to a woman who has been in contact with a relative inside the nuclear plant.
The facility, just 16 kilometers from the Belarusian border, was one of the first sites to fall to Russian forces, who invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 and quickly disarmed a nuclear plant security force of 150 national guard troops. No deaths were reported.
Russian media quoted the defense ministry two days later saying an agreement had been reached on joint security at the plant by Russian airborne forces and the Ukrainian national guard.
But the regulatory authority, known as the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, said in a letter to VOA that that the guard troops were taken prisoner and remain inside the facility.
Also inside are the 95 night shift workers on duty when the Russians arrived, the medical staff of the nearby Slavutych City Hospital, firefighters, and four sightseers who had asked for shelter, the inspectorate said. Altogether, about 300 Ukrainians are trapped inside.
The inspectorate’s letter said the members of the night crew, who normally work in 12-hour shifts, have not been relieved since the takeover. They have now worked more than 14 consecutive shifts.
“Operational personnel are physically and morally exhausted and can perform only a limited number of priority measures to maintain security and monitoring. This state of staff, despite the high level of professionalism, can cause staff errors,” the letter said.
A woman whose relative works inside said that she could communicate by mobile phone until digital communications were cut off Saturday, but that she is still receiving word of conditions in the plant, where rations have been cut to one meal a day. She asked that only her first name, Natalia, be used for fear of retaliation against her relative.
“Before that, two meals — at noon and midnight. Staff walked around the station searching for remaining candies and biscuits in offices and lockers,” Natalia said.
She said the Russian soldiers who seized the station didn’t have supplies, so they went to the nearby villages, asking for food. The soldiers are treating the staff “with respect” and have not mistreated anyone, she said, but conditions are difficult because of the cold.
“My relative sleeps on the table, dressed in several layers of sweatshirts,” Natalia said. “In this situation, you can’t sleep much because they have to keep track of everything that happens.”
The Chernobyl power plant’s management painted a more reassuring picture of the situation in a public statement posted to its Facebook page on Tuesday, saying that there was no shortage of food inside the facility and everyone was still healthy.
“Under ‘no-rotation’ conditions, the ChNPP [Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant] staff has been demonstrating high spirit and solidarity with each other, as well as huge responsibility for their duties. Luckily, all of them are safe and sound. The plant’s systems operate without any faults. The stock of food is currently enough,” says the statement.
The Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, however, said in its letter to VOA that the Russian soldiers do not comply with the “sanitary regime” involving standard precautions to protect against the escape of radioactive materials. This “will inevitably lead to the spread of radiation pollution from areas with higher levels of pollution to less contaminated areas and premises,” it said.
The letter noted that the recorded gamma radiation levels were 5-15 times higher than the average for 2021. “One of the reasons may be the disturbance of the upper layer of radiation-contaminated soil as a result of the movement of heavy military equipment,” the letter said, adding that as a result, radioactive particles were lifted along with the dust.
The current levels of gamma radiation do not pose a threat to human health outside the exclusion zone, which extends about 30 kilometers in all directions from the plant, the agency said. But it cautioned that it is no longer receiving data from the plant and cannot detect “the dynamics of gamma radiation levels.”
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is the site of what is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster. On April 26, 1986, its Number 4 reactor suffered a core meltdown followed by a series of explosions. The reactor was eventually shut down and encased in a steel and concrete containment structure.
Three other reactors remained in operation after the disaster, but all were shut down by 2000 and still are in the process of being fully decommissioned. The site cleanup is not expected to be completed until 2065.
Ukrainian authorities are keeping the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed about developments at the Chernobyl facility and another 15 nuclear reactors at four stations, which provide about half of the country’s total electricity production.
In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Wednesday, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that he had received a letter from the inspectorate asking for “immediate assistance to ensure the safety of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear facilities in the country.” Grossi said his agency had begun consultations on the request.
Grossi also called for “restraint from all measures or actions that could jeopardize the security of nuclear and other radioactive material, and the safe operation of any nuclear facilities in Ukraine, because any such incident could have severe consequences, aggravating human suffering and causing environmental harm.”
“It is of utmost importance that the staff working at the Specialized Enterprise Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are able to do their job safely and effectively and that their personal well-being is guaranteed by those who have taken control,” Grossi said.
He advised the board that Ukraine’s nuclear plants were operating normally despite the circumstances, but that grave danger remained.
“It is the first time a military conflict is happening amidst the facilities of a large established nuclear power program, which in this case also include the site of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” he said.
Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told VOA the most significant danger at the Chernobyl plant comes from possible damage to the confinement structure due to hostilities. He said the reactors elsewhere in Ukraine, which do not have confinement structures, are vulnerable to being hit by missiles.
“This is the first time we’ve had a war between two countries that have large civilian nuclear power complexes. And that, I think, is even a greater risk than Chernobyl that something’s going to happen to disrupt the shielding and safety of one of those reactors,” Weitz said.
Chary Rangacharyulu, a physics and engineering professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said the Russians may try to use the nuclear plants for political leverage, but he doubts they are “so foolish to destroy those facilities and let out radioactivities into the atmosphere.”
“However, if they make mistakes and blow up a facility or two, the harm will not be limited to Ukraine. It will go beyond. Russia and Belarus are the neighboring countries that will be very much affected. Let us hope and pray that the Russian government is not that insane to cause harm to its own people,” he said in a written response to questions from VOA.
Wade Allison, a professor of physics and a fellow at Keble College at Oxford University in England, said he saw no threat posed by the Chernobyl situation because “there have been no active nuclear reactors at Chernobyl since 2000. Spent fuel is not a problem.”