The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

IAEA finds normal radioactivity at Chernobyl on disaster’s anniversary

But the Russian military sent missiles near Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine’s largest nuclear energy complex

Firefighters on Feb. 4 take part in joint tactical exercises near the Chernobyl nuclear site. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rafael Mariano Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said regulators found “abnormal” radioactivity levels during a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear plant site. They found “at normal” levels. This article has been corrected.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the Chernobyl nuclear site Tuesday, on the 36th anniversary of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, even as Russian missiles flew low over Ukraine’s largest nuclear complex hours before.

Grossi said that radioactivity levels at the Chernobyl area were “at normal,” but that the Russian military occupation of Chernobyl in the first weeks of the war was anything but routine. “I don’t know if we were very close to disaster, but the situation was absolutely abnormal and very, very dangerous,” he said.

In a sign of those continuing nuclear risks, two low-flying missiles that came from the Black Sea flew over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex early Tuesday morning before landing in the town of Zaporizhzhia, according to Petro Kotin, president of Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear operating company. Zaporizhzhia ranks as the largest of Ukraine’s four nuclear plants.

He said it was the third time missiles had flown close to nuclear energy reactors in the past 10 days. The earlier missiles were most likely to have come from Belarus.

“This is forbidden by international and Ukrainian law,” Kotin said. “There is a no-fly zone above nuclear power plant sites.”

“They’re trying to rattle our resolve with nuclear threats that we should stare down rather than blink at,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, who served as the Pentagon’s deputy for nonproliferation policy under President George H.W. Bush.

Kate Brown, a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said containment buildings at nuclear plants have not been stress-tested for heavy artillery, “certainly not for the bombs the Russians have been deploying.” And she said that the spent fuel that has accumulated over decades remains even more vulnerable.

“Nuclear regulatory bodies around the world, starting with the IAEA, have not planned for something so human and banal as conventional warfare,” she said.

What's at risk in Chernobyl

The 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl sent vast plumes of radioactive material across much of Europe. The last of the four units there closed down in 2000 and they are now monitored so that spent fuel remains stable. The unit where the meltdown took place is now housed in a state-of-the-art encasement.

Much of the surrounding area is contaminated from the 1986 disaster — and is now an “exclusion zone” where the number of inhabitants and visitors is sharply restricted. Yet Ukrainian officials said that Russian troops had built trenches and occupied some of the most contaminated areas, including an area known as the Red Forest, where radioactivity in 1986 changed the color of trees there.

After requiring the site’s employees to work there for weeks without going home, Russian troops withdrew from the area nearly a month ago.

As Ukrainians gathered to commemorate the accident, the current crisis shaped the somber ritual. Kotin said he met in a park in Kyiv with 100 to 200 people who had been in Chernobyl at the time of the meltdown. “People who were quite young are now quite old and have a lot of illnesses,” he said.

Despite this, he added, they wanted to confront Russian troops about what the consequences of their actions could be.

Some Ukrainians, like the country’s minister of environmental protection and natural resources, Ruslan Strilets, differentiated between what caused Chernobyl to melt down nearly four decades ago and the risks that arose during Moscow’s occupation of the exclusion zone this year.

In 1986, he said it was “the human factor” and an error that ignited the catastrophe. Two months ago, Strilets said, it was “exclusively the Russian factor.”

“It was the Russian factor of not understanding and handling dangerous objects in a barbarous way,” he added.

Grossi, for his part, reflected on the anniversary even as he announced that his agency was bringing new radiation monitoring equipment linked to its headquarters in Vienna.

“I’m here to pay respect to the victims of the nuclear accident and to all those who work tirelessly to rebuild and protect this place,” Grossi said on Twitter, calling the power plant staff at Chernobyl “heroes … for their resilience and courage during such extremely difficult times.”

Now that the Russians have left, stories of their time in Chernobyl have emerged.

Liudmyla Kozak, an engineer whose job it was to monitor the closed-circuit television feeds for safety risks, was among the first to see the Russian troops entering the Chernobyl facilities on Feb. 24.

“Suddenly, they were everywhere,” Kozak said.

Once they took over, Kozak said that the Russians quickly came to the realization that “someone needed to work there.” The staff was kept on. Kozak said she worked for 25 days straight, 600 hours, before she left in exchange for another group of Chernobyl workers.

Kozak said the most frightening moment came at the beginning of March, when the site’s main electricity line was damaged and the plant was plunged into darkness. Workers persuaded the Russian forces to bring the fuel needed to keep the emergency diesel generators running.

“It was just fear and horror, that’s all. There’s no other way to explain it,” Kozak said. “You just sit in the dark, and you’re just waiting for your death, when everything comes apart.”

Many nuclear experts worry that many companies and Western countries were promoting nuclear energy despite political and military uncertainties like those in Ukraine.

“The Russian buzzing of Zaporizhzhia suggests we need to rethink building more radioactive targets in Central Europe,” Sokolski said.

Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that “in my view, the nuclear industry is willfully ignoring the major lessons of the accident, which resulted from a toxic combination of design flaws and operator errors.”

Lyman said that “after the accident, Western nuclear power advocates were quick to point fingers at the flaws in the Chernobyl design.” But today, he said, “by displaying levels of hubris and tunnel vision not unlike the Soviet authorities at the time, the nuclear industry and the [Energy Department] are pushing forward with plans to deploy defective reactor designs with fewer layers of protection than current-generation pressurized-water reactors.”

“War and nuclear power aren’t a good combination,” said Allison Macfarlane, who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Barack Obama and now directs the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. “Reactors haven’t been designed to be war-proof.”

Strilets said one of the most important steps to assure nuclear security in Ukraine would be for the West to establish a no-fly zone to prevent Russian aircraft and missiles from entering Ukrainian airspace.

“As long as Ukrainian skies aren’t closed off and rockets are flying at us, we can’t speak definitively of nuclear safety for Europe and the entire world,” Strilets said.

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.