Explained: Why did Russian troops seize control of Chernobyl nuclear disaster site?

After a brief but fierce battle, Russian troops were able to capture the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine, the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history. On the first day of Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine, its military forces overran the plant and held several staff members of the Chernobyl facilities hostage, Ukrainian authorities said.

The attack was by no means unanticipated. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Russian occupation forces were trying to wrest control of the plant. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry warned of another nuclear disaster if Russia continues its invasion. “In 1986, the world saw the biggest technological disaster in Chernobyl,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry tweeted, referring to the Chernobyl disaster that led to the death of thousands of people. “If Russia continues the war, Chernobyl can happen again in 2022.”

So, why did Russia seize the plant, which has largely been devoid of human life for over three decades and still contains radioactive debris? Is there a reason to panic? We explain.

Located around 16 km away from the city of Chernobyl and a little over 100 km away from Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, the power plant witnessed the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

The disaster occurred between April 25-26, when a group of technicians in what was then Soviet-controlled Ukraine carried out a botched safety test that led to a series of explosions at Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 and a partial meltdown of its core. The explosions exposed the core and released clouds of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the initial explosion resulted in the death of two workers, while 28 firemen and emergency clean-up workers died within three months of the explosion from Acute Radiation Sickness and one from cardiac arrest. In 2005, the UN predicted that around 4,000 people may eventually die due to radiation exposure, BBC reported.

The radiation also affected neighbouring Belarus as well as parts of Russia and Europe.

To put the scale of the tragedy into perspective — it is said to have released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. Initially, Soviet officials tried to cover up the disaster. It was only after Swedish officials raised alarms over a sharp increase in radiation levels coming from the Soviet Union, that the Kremlin admitted that the accident occurred. In fact, the catastrophe is considered one of the key factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later.

A New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is seen behind the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine. (Reuters)

Since the accident, Chernobyl’s “exclusion zone”— which covers a 32-km radius around the site — has remained largely uninhabited, while the plant’s remaining three reactors were all shut down by 2000. Radiation levels remain higher than normal. A sarcophagus built to cover the reactor after the accident has since deteriorated, resulting in radiation leaks.

Why did Russia capture Chernobyl?

Russia’s attack on Chernobyl was not out of the blue. Since the shortest route from the Russian border to Kyiv passes through Chernobyl, Ukraine had deployed security forces to guard the area months ago, New York Times reported.

As expected, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin first announced the invasion, Russian special forces attacked the plant. Russian troops were said to have entered the exclusion zone on Thursday, before crossing the border into Ukraine. Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhaila Podolyak said that the power plant was seized after a “fierce battle”. In a Facebook post, another Ukrainian official alleged that several staff members were being held hostage.

According to military analysts, seizing Chernobyl was a strategic decision that gave Russian troops quick and easy access to Kyiv from Belarus, which is an ally of Moscow. The ghost town in which the power plant is located is essentially placed on a direct highway to Kyiv. By capturing Chernobyl, Russia has secured a route into Ukraine for its ground forces.

An operator’s arm-chair covered with plastic sits in an empty control room of the 3rd reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl. (AP)

So, is there a reason to panic?

Reactor 4 now sits under a steel and concrete structure called the New Safe Confinement, which was built to confine the remnants of the reactor and is said to be strong enough to withstand a tornado. Around 200 tonnes of radioactive fuel is believed to be inside the wreckage of the reactor.

Hours after the attack, Ukraine’s nuclear agency said it was recording increased radiation levels around the shuttered power plant, Reuters reported. It said the change was likely due to the movement of heavy military equipment in the area lifting radioactive dust into the air.

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According to a report by the Times, soldiers are unlikely to face much harm from radioactive particles as long as they do not spend too much time in areas with high radiation levels. But a Ukrainian official warned that damage to the nuclear waste storage facility could lead to radioactive dust spreading across Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Europe, the Times reported.

While the New Safe Confinement is likely to protect its contents against all natural disasters, a full-fledged war may throw some curveballs its way, such as explosions from bombs hurled at the structure. But experts say that both sides have little to gain by destroying the reactor.

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