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What’s happening with Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plants, part 1: general information and an update on Chornobyl

Ukraine operates four nuclear power plants, numbering fifteen reactors in total. It ranks as the 8th country in the world in terms of nuclear energy, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. A state company, Energoatom, operates all nuclear power stations in Ukraine.

Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, eight of the country’s 15 reactors have remained in operation, including two at the Zaporizhzhya NPP, three at Rivne, one at Khmelnytskyi, and two in Yuzhnoukrainsk. 

The Russian aggressors currently occupy two nuclear power plants: Chornobyl NPP and Zaporizhzhya NPP (the largest nuclear plant in Europe). They remain under the operational control of the Ukrainian side, and the radiation levels at all NPPs are within the normal range. Radiation, fire, and environmental conditions at the industrial sites of nuclear power plants and adjacent territories have not changed and are within current standards.

However, all employees of these stations are under intense psychological pressure from the Russian occupiers, with the Russian armed forces interrogating all staff upon arrival. Their detention-style conditions are essentially equivalent to forced labor. This results in staff malnutrition, no proper shift rotation, emerging health issues, no heating, and no fresh clothing – all paramount for workers on radioactive sites. 

With this massive act of nuclear terrorism, Russia is violating multiple international agreements regarding nuclear energy utilization, three UN resolutions, and all seven IAEA pillars of nuclear safety and security. 

When addressing the Parliament of Japan, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky stated:

In the war against Ukraine, Russia is using nuclear power plants as military facilities, and it will take years to investigate the radiation damage caused by Russian troops not only to Ukraine but to the whole world.”

He stressed that Russia had turned the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant into an arena of war, using the 30-kilometer exclusion zone to prepare new attacks against Ukrainian defense forces.

Chornobyl NPP: the current situation

The Soviet authorities in Moscow were responsible for the Chornobyl disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986. Russian authorities are now replaying history. A history that is considered the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe in both cost and casualties.

Since the start of the Russian invasion, up until March 20, 2022, regulatory control over the state of nuclear and radiation safety at the site of SSE Chornobyl NPP and in the exclusion zone and control of the nuclear materials therein has been impossible. There was no information on the situation at the Chornobyl NPP site, as there was no contact with the Ukrainian personnel who remained at the site for 25 days in a row without rotation. Given the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of Ukrainian staff (as well as their small number), the personnel were unable to conduct maintenance and repair of equipment crucial for the safety of the facilities, adequate maintenance at the site of SSE Chornobyl. This reduced the reliability and increased the possibility of failures in equipment, emergencies, and accidents.

“I know what a nuclear catastrophe is: my knowledge does not come from textbooks or from newspaper articles or from politicians’ statements. I know exactly what this is for children and adults, for relatives and friends, for those who are close to the epicenter, and those who are thousands of kilometers away. I know how the peaceful atom kills friends. I know what forces and how many lives it takes to fight the peaceful atom that is out of control. Tanks shelling nuclear power plants are the lowest of the low [forms of aggression and war] and once again reveal the immoral and barbaric attitude [of Russia] towards humanity as a whole and each human life individually.” 

To date, the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, in conditions of limited capacity, carefully records the crimes of the Russian military. They have recorded a list of assets destroyed/stolen by Russian invaders. 

Starting from March 16, 2022, occupiers are looting all available machinery en masse, including specialized machinery, valuables, equipment from offices, and movable property, such as recently repaired or purchased cars and heavy forestry tools. The assets looted from the NPP and nearby infrastructure are taken to the territory of Belarus, and there is already photographic evidence of a car belonging to SSE Pushcha North (Ukraine) near Gomel in a column of Russian vehicles. There are provable intrusions into garages, dormitories and houses, with the theft of both official and private property.

On March 22, 2022, the Russian occupiers looted and destroyed the newest Central Analytical Laboratory in Chornobyl, worth 6 million euros. This was a unique complex with powerful analytical capabilities that could provide services at any stage of radioactive waste management, from air conditioning to disposal, as well as research and technology development. Highly active samples were stored at the laboratory. Today they are in the hands of the enemy; one may only hope that occupiers harm only themselves and not the entire civilized world.

The looting enacted by Russians is massive in scale. Yet, there is no dosimetric control, so radioactively contaminated objects may soon appear on the territory of Belarus, Russia and other countries, which will endanger everyone nearby.

It is also important to remember that the lands around Chornobyl NPP are part of the Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve, set up by Ukraine to protect local wildlife. 70% of the Chornobyl exclusion zone is a unique reserve with wildlife and a diversity of rare animals and plants. It is currently being threatened and destroyed by Russian troops and the fires they are causing. 300+ species of vertebrates live within the Reserve. 75 of these species are listed in the Red List of Ukraine, and 14 – in the IUCN Red List. The region’s wildlife is suffering greatly from the violence and thoughtless actions of the Russian occupiers.

Update:

As of March 31, 20:00, the Russians left the territory of the nuclear power plant, taking with them the Ukrainian National Guards, who had been held captive since the capture of Chornobyl. All technological equipment of the Chornobyl NPP operates, particularly the system of control and monitoring of radiation indicators.

Chornobyl Director Valerii Seida said that the Russians had taken five of the 15 containers with repair equipment and spare parts needed for the station.