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

Chernobyl, Ukraine – As the scene of an assault on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Chernobyl exclusion zone, one of the most toxic places on the planet, was probably not the best option. But this did not seem to bother the Russian generals who took over the site in the early stages of the war.

“We told them not to do it, which was dangerous, but they ignored us,” Valeriy Simyonov, the chief security engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear site, said in an interview.

Apparently unaffected by security concerns, Russian forces marched on the ground with excavators and tanks, digging trenches and bunkers, and exposing themselves to potentially harmful doses of persistent radiation beneath the surface.

On a visit to the newly liberated nuclear station, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, the wind blew whirlwinds of dust along the roads and scenes of contempt for safety were everywhere, although officials Ukraine’s nuclear forces say no major radiation leak was caused. Russian military occupation for a month.

In a place of extensive trenches a few hundred meters outside the city of Chernobyl, the Russian army had dug an elaborate maze of sunken walkways and bunkers. An abandoned armored personnel carrier was sitting nearby.

Apparently, the soldiers had been camping in the radioactive forest for weeks. Although 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.

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

But Russian nuclear experts appeared to have little influence over army commanders, he said. The military seemed more concerned about planning the assault on Kyiv, and after that failed, using Chernobyl as an escape route to Belarus for its damaged troops.

“They came and did what they wanted” in the area around the station, Mr. Simyonov. Despite the efforts of him and other Ukrainian nuclear engineers and technicians who remained in place during the occupation, working 24 hours a day and unable to leave, except for a shift change at the end of March, the entrenchment it continued.

Earthquakes were not the only case of recklessness in treating such a toxic place that it still has the potential to spread radiation far beyond the borders of Ukraine.

In a particularly inadvisable action, 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 as it came out of the balance of a Geiger counter, Mr. Simyonov. It was unclear what happened to the man, he said.

The most troubling moment, said Mr. Simyonov arrived in mid-March, when power was cut off in a cooling pool that stores spent nuclear fuel rods that contain many times more radioactive material than was dispersed in the 1986 catastrophe. generate concern among Ukrainians of a fire if the water that cooled the fuel rods ran out, exposing them to air, although this prospect was quickly ruled out by experts. “They’re emphasizing the worst-case scenarios, which are possible but not necessarily plausible,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to experts, the biggest risk of a prolonged power outage was that hydrogen generated by spent fuel could accumulate and explode. Bruno Chareyron, laboratory director of CRIIRAD, a French group that monitors radiation risks, cited a 2008 study from the Chernobyl site that suggests this could happen in about 15 days.

The march to Kyiv, on the western bank of the Dnipro River, began and ended in Chernobyl for the 31st and 36th Combined Armed Forces of the Russian Army, which were traveling with a special forces assistant and ethnic Chechen fighters.

The formation entered Ukraine on February 24, fought for most of a month in the suburbs of Kyiv and then withdrew, leaving behind incinerated armored vehicles, its own war deaths, widespread destruction and evidence. of human rights violations, including hundreds of people. civilian bodies on the streets of Bucha city.

As they withdrew from Chernobyl, Russian troops blew up a bridge in the exclusion zone and planted a dense maze of anti-personnel mines, blast cables and explosive traps around the missing station. Two Ukrainian soldiers stepped on mines last week, according to the Ukrainian government agency that manages the site.

In a strange final signal of the unit’s misfortunes, Ukrainian soldiers found discarded appliances and electronics on the roads in the Chernobyl zone. Apparently, these were looted from deeper cities within Ukraine and rejected for unclear reasons in the final withdrawal. Journalists found a washing machine on the side of a road on the outskirts of the city of Chernobyl.

Employees of the Chernobyl-based exclusion zone management agency suffered under Russian occupation, but nothing came close to the outrage that Russian forces visited civilians in Bukha and other villages around Kyiv. .

The Russians had come in seemingly endless columns on the first day of the war, said 45-year-old Natasha Siloshenko, a cook in a cafe serving nuclear workers. He had watched, cautiously, from a side street.

“There was a sea of ​​vehicles,” he said. “They arrived in waves in the area, driving quickly to Kyiv.”

There was little or no fighting in the area, so to speak. The armored columns only passed through it.

During the occupation, Russian soldiers searched the apartments of nuclear technicians and engineers, firefighters and support personnel in the city of Chernobyl. “Valuables were taken” from the apartments, he said, but there was little violence.

Workers tried to warn the Russians about the dangers of radiation, without success.

Background radiation in most of the 18-mile exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant, after 36 years, poses little risk and is roughly equivalent to a high-altitude plane flight. But in invisible hot spots, some covering one or two acres, others just a few square feet, radiation can rise to thousands of times normal ambient levels.

A soldier in such a place would be exposed every hour to what experts consider a safe limit for an entire year, Mr. Chareyron, the nuclear expert. The most dangerous isotopes in the soil are cesium 137, strontium 90, and several plutonium isotopes. The days or weeks spent in these areas carry a high risk of causing cancer, he said.

Throughout the area, radioactive particles have settled to the ground to a depth of a few centimeters at one foot. They pose little threat if left underground, where their average life would be harmless for decades or hundreds of years.

Until the Russian invasion, the main threat posed by this pollution was its absorption by mosses and trees that can burn in forest fires, spread poisons in smoke, or through birds that eat radioactive insects that live on land.

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

In an excavated position, Russian troops had dug a bunker on the sandy side of a road embankment and left piles of rubbish (food wrappers, discarded boots, a blackened pot), suggesting that they had lived in the underground space for a long time. .

Nearby, an excavator had scraped the upper ground to build berms for artillery sites and half a dozen fox holes.

The surrounding forest had recently been burned, suggesting that a fire had swept the area during Russian occupation, adding radioactive smoke to the exposure of Russian soldiers, along with dust from the altered ground.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi issued a statement on Thursday saying the agency had failed to confirm reports of radiation-sick Russian soldiers in the area or to conduct an independent assessment of the levels of radiation at the site. The agency’s automated radiation sensors at Chernobyl have been inoperable for more than a month, he said.

Ukrainian government radiation monitors stopped working on the first day of the war, said Kateryna Pavlova, a spokeswoman for the Chernobyl Zone Management Agency in Ukraine. Satellite readings, he said, showed slightly high radiation in some areas after the Russian occupation.

Armored vehicles traveling on slices, instead of wheels, pose the main risk to radiological safety in a wider area, as they drag the radioactive soil and spread it to areas of Belarus and Russia as they retreat, said Mrs. Pavlova. “The next person to come may be contaminated,” he said.

Although the five-day power outage did not cause any disaster, it was still a source of great anxiety among plant operators, said Sergei Makluk, a shift supervisor interviewed at the nuclear power plant on Thursday evening. .

The safety generators that went into operation require about 18,000 gallons of diesel a day. In the early days, Russian officials assured employees of the plant that they would have enough fuel, extracted from supplies that had been transported by armored vehicles in the fighting in the suburbs of Kyiv, said Mr. Makluk. But on the fifth day, with the well-documented logistical problems of the military, agents said they would no longer supply diesel.

“They said, ‘There is not enough fuel in front of us,'” and that an electric cable leading to Belarus should be used to remove electricity from the Belarussian grid to cool the waste pool.

Mr. Simyonov, the chief security engineer, described the threat of stopping the supply of diesel fuel to the generators as a “blackmail” to force the Belarussian authorities to resolve the issue. Although it happened, the electricity was restored in time and the nuclear fuel never overheated.

However, digging trenches and other dubious activities posed a much lower risk than the waste pool, and most of that for the Russian soldiers themselves, Mr. Simyonov added ironically, “We invite you to dig more trenches here if you want.”

The report was provided by William J. Broad of New York.

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