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Russian forces take Chernobyl zone, Ukraine says, raising fears of ‘ecological disaster’

An abandoned shop is seen in the Chernobyl zone close to the Ukraine-Belarus border crossing Feb. 13 in Vilcha, Ukraine. (Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images)

Ukrainian authorities said Thursday that Russian forces have captured the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the scene of a 1986 meltdown that sent a radioactive cloud over parts of Europe and left a no man’s land of contaminated soil and other fallout, which remains dangerous.

“The Chernobyl zone — the exclusion zone — and all installations of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant have been taken under control of Russian armed groups,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in a televised statement. He said no casualties have yet been confirmed there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky previously announced that fighting over the area was underway.

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“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelensky said on Twitter. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, recalling the catastrophe that ranks as the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident, said the Russian attack “may cause another ecological disaster.” If the war continues, it said, Chernobyl “can happen again in 2022.”

There was no immediate way to confirm what Russian forces were doing in the zone, located about 80 miles north of Kyiv and 12 miles from the border with Belarus. Russia massed forces in Belarus in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s attack on Ukraine.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said the United States has seen signs that Russian troops moved through the site but could not confirm that they had taken control of it.

A video shared on social media appeared to show tanks parked on a road running past the Chernobyl facilities. Explosions could be heard in the background.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser, Anton Gerashchenko, said Russian forces arriving from Belarus battled Ukrainian national guardsmen, who were “fighting hard” to protect storage facilities for “unsafe nuclear radioactive waste.” His account could not immediately be confirmed.

If artillery hits the facilities, “radioactive nuclear dust can be spread over the territory of Ukraine, Belarus” and European Union countries, he warned.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement Thursday that the agency was “following the situation in Ukraine with grave concern and is appealing for maximum restraint to avoid any action that may put the country’s nuclear facilities at risk.”

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Ukraine informed the IAEA that “unidentified armed forces” had taken control of the power plant site, Grossi’s statement said, but that there had been no casualties or destruction there.

“It is of vital importance that the safe and secure operations of the nuclear facilities in that zone should not be affected or disrupted in any way,” the statement said.

In April 1986, core explosions and fires broke out at the Chernobyl plant, then under the control of the Soviet Union. Two workers died from the explosions. Large quantities of radioactive material contaminated the surrounding land, and a nearby city was evacuated. Vast swaths of Europe were affected, and a radioactive cloud spread as far away as Norway.

A United Nations report found that 134 first responders were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome after the accident. Twenty-eight of them died within four months, and 19 more died over the next two decades. Acute radiation syndrome can damage bone marrow, suppress a patient’s immune system and cause intestinal problems, among other effects. There were no cases among the general population living in towns around the power plant.

Radiation poses an invisible threat. It’s impossible to smell or see without a special measuring device, and its health effects are not immediately apparent unless a person has been exposed to a very large dose. But a dangerous isotope of cesium present at Chernobyl has been linked to higher risk of developing leukemia later in life, according to Lydia Zablotska, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco, who has studied the health effects of radiation from the Chernobyl accident.

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In the decades since the accident, studies also showed that radiation from the Chernobyl accident led to thyroid conditions, particularly in children. The United Nations estimated that at least 4,000 people may have died as a result of exposure to radiation.

The Chernobyl zone, one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world, has remained closed since 1986, although a small number of people still live in the area — mostly elderly Ukrainians who refused to evacuate or who quietly resettled there later.

A concrete shelter was built in 1986 to prevent the release of about 220 tons of highly radioactive material. A new and safer structure was moved into position over the site in 2016, and operation was handed over to Ukrainian authorities in 2020. The structure is “strong enough to withstand a tornado,” according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It was designed to last at least 100 years and built to withstand temperatures ranging between minus-45 degrees and 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

The structure “was built to be secure for a very long period of time, so I hope it stays that way,” Zablotska said.

The bigger danger would be any damage to a waste storage facility on the site containing radioactive material, Zablotska said. There are also hot spots containing the cesium isotope inside the Chernobyl zone, she added. Staff at the site know to avoid those areas — but newcomers, including invading troops, may not. They could put their own health at risk or inadvertently contaminate tanks and other vehicles and machinery, according to Zablotska.

Staff have been operating at reduced capacity this month due to a coronavirus outbreak among employees. But workers charged with maintaining nuclear and radiation safety continued to report to work.

“What really worries me is there’s staff there, there are scientists working there. How are they doing? They dedicated their lives to protecting the world from the most contaminated area on Earth,” Zablotska said.

Yevgeniya Kuznetsova, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian state agency charged with managing the Chernobyl zone, told CNN that Russian troops overran the plant Thursday.

“When I came to the office today in the morning [in Kyiv], it turned out that the [Chernobyl nuclear power plant] management had left. So there was no one to give instructions or defend,” she said.

For Russia, the site may hold particular significance, since the accident there 36 years ago led to social changes and new cooperation with the West that transformed the Soviet Union.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev later suggested that the Chernobyl disaster was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union” — more so than his liberalizing reforms.

Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Romania, and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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