War comes to Chernobyl, raising nuclear fears in Russia invasion of Ukraine
Alexander Nazaryan, Senior W.H. Correspondent – February 24, 2022
WASHINGTON — According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian forces have seized the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in northern Ukraine, where the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place in 1986 — and where vast reserves of dangerous nuclear waste remain entombed.
“After a fierce battle, Ukrainian control over the Chernobyl site was lost. The condition of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, confinement, and nuclear waste storage facilities is unknown,” an official at the plant said on Thursday afternoon, several hours after Russian forces moved across the Belarusian border, toward the plant.
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Twitter that Chernobyl was under threat: “Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated.” He described the move as “a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”
When the reactor melted down in April 1986 during a test gone awry, a radioactive cloud covered much of the continent. Ukraine was then part of the Soviet Union.
The tightly protected Chernobyl Exclusion Zone sweeps in an almost 20-mile radius around the reactor. Today it includes ongoing safety operations, forests that have grown lush again, a few small settlements where villagers have refused to live and the town of Pripyat, abandoned by the plant’s employees and their families in the days after the explosion.
Reports indicate that Russian forces have entered the area around Chernobyl across the border with Belarus. It is not clear how extensive the fighting was to the reactor itself, which is part of a larger nuclear plant now in the process of being decommissioned.
Under the manufactured claim of needing to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched an all-out assault on his much smaller and less powerful neighbor. He is believed to have ultimate designs on the seat of power in the capital, Kyiv.
The incursion raised fears that fighting near the reactor could dislodge harmful isotopes that were initially encased in a concrete sarcophagus by the Soviet Union and, more recently, were covered by a more modern protective dome whose cost has been estimated at $1.7 billion. Construction of the updated shelter was largely funded by Europe.
A top Ukrainian official told the New York Times that Ukrainian military troops were “putting up fierce resistance,” but worried that continued fighting could stir up “radioactive dust [that] could cover the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and the countries of the European Union.”
Chernobyl remains profoundly, and painfully, symbolic to Russians and Ukrainians alike. Given how long radioactive materials retain the ability to cause harm, the land surrounding Chernobyl will remain uninhabitable for perhaps the next 20,000 years.
The combination of incompetence and cruelty that led to the disaster — both vividly portrayed in a recent celebrated HBO miniseries that enraged Russian authorities — saw officials try to hide the extent of destruction, and is widely seen as having led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose image Putin has tried to rehabilitate.