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Ukraine says Chernobyl radiation levels ‘exceeded,’ as Russia confirms its forces seized the nuclear plant

A worker sets a flag signaling radioactivity in front of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant during a drill organized by Ukraine's Emergency Ministry in 2006. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Ukrainian government warned on Friday that radiation levels near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site have “exceeded” control levels, as the Russian military confirmed it has captured the area but insisted that radiation levels remained “normal.”

“The control levels of gamma radiation dose rate in the Exclusion zone were exceeded,” the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, a government body, said in a statement early Friday.

Local experts “connect this with disturbance of the top layer of soil from movement of a large number of radio heavy military machinery through the Exclusion zone and increase of air pollution,” it added. However, it noted that “the condition of Chernobyl nuclear facilities and other facilities is unchanged.”

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Earlier Friday, the body said that although data “from the automated radiation monitoring system of the exclusion zone” indicated that the control levels of gamma radiation had risen, it was “currently impossible to establish the reasons for the change in the radiation background in the exclusion zone because of the occupation and military fight in this territory.”

Despite the higher readings, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Friday that the readings recorded by the Ukrainian regulator remained relatively low and “do not pose any danger to the public.”

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a 1,000-square-mile zone of forest surrounding the shuttered plant and lies between the Belarus-Ukraine border and the Ukrainian capital.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, then under the control of the Soviet Union, became infamous as the scene of an April 1986 disaster, when a series of explosions and fires sent a huge radioactive cloud over parts of Europe and left contaminated soil and other fallout, which remains dangerous.

The catastrophe ranks as the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident.

On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that its forces have taken control of the area near the power plant as part of Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine, which began Thursday and sparked global outrage.

“Yesterday, on February 24, units of the Russian Airborne Forces took full control of the area around the Chernobyl NPP,” or nuclear power plant, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Friday, according to the Interfax news agency.

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Russia countered Ukraine’s statement and said radiation levels were normal.

“Radiation levels are normal in the NPP area. The NPP personnel continue to operate the power plant as usual and to monitor radiation levels,” Konashenkov added.

Radiation poses an invisible threat. It’s impossible to smell or see and can be detected only with a special measuring device. Health effects are not immediately apparent unless a person has been exposed to a very large dose.

Ukraine’s armed forces conducted combat and first aid training drills on Feb. 5 in an abandoned town near the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

In the decades since the accident, studies have shown that radiation from the Chernobyl plant led to various health conditions, including thyroid problems, 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.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry warned Thursday that the Russian capture of the plant “may cause another ecological disaster,” if the conflict continued.

“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also tweeted Thursday. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”

In a further twist, the White House expressed its outrage over “credible” reports that Russian forces were holding the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear facilities hostage.

“We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage. This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and greatly concerning,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Thursday news briefing. “We condemn it, and we request their release.”

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Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, did not address reports of hostages early Friday but said the workers were still operating the plant. “The safety of power units is ensured together with the staff of the Ukrainian security battalion,” he said, adding that “the radiation background is normal.”

The Chernobyl plant decommissioning team had been operating a scaled-back “downtime” service since Feb. 15 because of an outbreak of coronavirus cases among staff, its official website said.

“Until at least 27 February 2022, the operational staff only, ensuring nuclear and radiation safety will remain working on-site on a regular operating schedule,” it announced earlier this month.

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The building containing the exploded reactor from 1986 was covered in 2017 by an enormous concrete shelter aimed at containing radiation still leaking from the accident. Robots inside the shelter work to dismantle the destroyed reactor and gather up the radioactive waste. It’s expected to take until 2064 to finish dismantling the reactors.

The IAEA said Friday that it was continuing to monitor the situation in Ukraine, while Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi “remained gravely concerned about the overall situation in Ukraine.”

Andrew Jeong, William Branigin, David L. Stern and Claire Parker contributed to this report.