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After 600 hours in Russian-controlled Chernobyl power plant, workers get to go home

A reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is covered in 2018 because of a disaster in 1986 that sent a radioactive cloud over parts of Europe. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Exhausted technical staffers at the closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant, who have worked for more than three weeks without a break while Russian troops have occupied the facility, were able to change shifts and go home, the plant said.

About 300 people — including technicians, guards and others — had been effectively trapped at the facility since Feb. 24, when Russian forces took control. The staff had not been able to rotate work shifts as usual, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

But on Sunday, after about 600 hours inside, 64 people were allowed to leave, the plant said in a post on Facebook, where it has been delivering periodic updates on the perilous situation. Fifty shift workers were among those allowed to go, the plant said, and they were replaced by 46 “employee-volunteers.”

On Monday, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a news release that the remaining technical staffers were allowed “to go home and rest for the first time since Russian forces took control of the site last month.”

The facility’s employees have “heroically performed their professional duties and maintained the appropriate level of safety,” the plant’s post said.

What’s at risk in Chernobyl

Ukraine informed the IAEA of the Sunday shift change, the agency said, and the country’s national regulator said the workers who rotated out amounted to about half the staff at the site. Their replacements were Ukrainian, the IAEA said. The agency has for weeks called for the workers to be allowed to rotate, citing the safety concerns posed by exhausted personnel operating under exceedingly stressful conditions.

Grossi said Sunday that the changeover was “a positive — albeit long overdue — development.”

“They deserve our full respect and admiration for having worked in these extremely difficult circumstances,” Grossi said in a statement Sunday. “They were there for far too long. I sincerely hope that remaining staff from this shift can also rotate soon.”

This month, the plant, where radioactive waste management facilities are located, was disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid, alarming those who feared it would disrupt the cooling of on-site nuclear material and potentially lead to radiation leaks. After five days, during which time the plant used a backup generator for its electricity, engineers restored power, the IAEA said. The plant’s last reactor closed in 2000.

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine has also said that some maintenance and repairs could not be carried out because of “the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel.”

Chernobyl power line again damaged by Russia, Ukraine’s nuclear agency says

The Chernobyl plant was the scene of the 1986 disaster that sent a huge radioactive cloud over parts of Europe and left contaminated soil and other fallout, which remains dangerous, at the plant site. It was the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident.

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