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Chernobyl plant disconnected from power grid; Ukraine demands cease-fire for urgent repairs

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said earlier it had lost contact with monitoring systems that transmit key data from Chernobyl

A Soviet-era radar system, once used as part of an early-warning missile defense network, stands behind a sign warning of radioactivity at Chernobyl in 2018. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
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Ukraine’s closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant has been disconnected from the nation’s power grid by Russian forces, Ukraine’s state-owned grid operator Ukrenergo said Wednesday, potentially jeopardizing the cooling of nuclear material stored at the site.

“Because of military actions of Russian occupiers the nuclear power plant in Chornobyl was fully disconnected from the power grid. Nuclear station has no power supply,” Ukrenergo said in a statement on its official Telegram page, using Ukraine’s spelling for the plant.

Electricity is needed for cooling, ventilation and fire-extinguishing systems at the closed site. In a statement on its Facebook page, Ukrenergo also said that emergency diesel generators have been turned on but that the fuel would last for only 48 hours.

What to know about Ukraine’s nuclear sites and the risks the Russian invasion could pose

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday demanded a cease-fire with Russia to allow repairs.

“The only electrical grid supplying the Chornobyl NPP and all its nuclear facilities occupied by Russian army is damaged,” he tweeted. “… I call on the international community to urgently demand Russia to cease fire and allow repair units to restore power supply.”

He warned that after reserve diesel generators run out of fuel, “cooling systems of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel will stop, making radiation leaks imminent. Putin’s barbaric war puts entire Europe in danger.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday on Twitter that the power loss “violates [a] key safety pillar on ensuring uninterrupted power supply,” but it added that “in this case IAEA sees no critical impact on safety.” The agency said factors including the volume of cooling water at Chernobyl were “sufficient for effective heat removal without need for electrical supply.”

The IAEA also said Tuesday that it had lost contact with monitoring systems that transmit data on nuclear material at the Chernobyl plant.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog’s director general “indicated that remote data transmission from safeguards monitoring systems installed at the Chornobyl NPP had been lost,” the IAEA said in a statement.

“The Agency is looking into the status of safeguards monitoring systems in other locations in Ukraine and will provide further information soon,” it added.

Nuclear catastrophe ‘narrowly averted’ as Russia presses siege of Ukrainian cities

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted Wednesday that the IAEA had “unexpectedly lost connection” with the monitoring systems, calling it an “extremely dangerous situation.”

The Chernobyl plant, then under the Soviet Union’s control, was the scene of a 1986 disaster in which explosions and fires sent a huge radioactive cloud over parts of Europe and left contaminated soil and other fallout, which remains dangerous, at the plant site.

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

Last month, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that its forces had taken control of the area near the site as part of Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine, sparking global alarm.

Decades after Chernobyl, war raises nuclear fears in Ukraine

The European Union said in a statement Wednesday that it was “extremely concerned” by the nuclear safety risks “caused by the Russian invasion on Ukraine and the potential damage to its nuclear facilities.”

It issued an “urgent call” for Russia to end its military operations near all nuclear power facilities in Ukraine and to allow their safe operation.

“We must do everything that we can to prevent a nuclear accident, incident or other radiological emergency that could seriously impact local populations, neighbouring countries and the international community. It is time to act to avoid such a scenario,” the statement said.

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko also said Wednesday, according to Reuters, that authorities do not know what the radiation levels are at Chernobyl and have no control over what is happening at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which was seized by Russian forces last week.

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)

The IAEA this week reiterated an offer to both sides for the director general to travel to Chernobyl and other sites in Ukraine to help protect nuclear facilities amid the conflict.

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

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

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Ukrainian authorities have told the agency that it was “increasingly urgent” to rotate out the Chernobyl plant’s 210 technical employees and guards to ensure “safe management” amid “worsening” conditions. They have been working at the plant since Russian forces took control.

“I’m deeply concerned about the difficult and stressful situation facing staff at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and the potential risks this entails for nuclear safety,” Grossi said. “I call on the forces in effective control of the site to urgently facilitate the safe rotation of personnel there.”

Annabelle Chapman contributed to this report.