Radiation Concerns Grow at Chernobyl and Elsewhere in Ukraine

There are growing concerns around the globe about radiation releases not only at the crippled Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, but at several nuclear power plants that continue to operate in the Ukraine, providing power for the residents under attack from Russian forces.

On Thursday, Russian troops invaded  Pripyat, home of the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant which exploded in 1986. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak told the Associated Press that Russian forces took control over the decommissioned nuclear power plant; authorities there said in the process of the violent attack in the area, shelling hit a radioactive waste repository at Chernobyl, increasing the amount of radiation in the area.

Radiation monitoring devices in eastern Europe are picking-up on increased radiation; right now, the increase is contained wholly within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area rich with radioactivity where people are not allowed to live.

On April 26, 1986, through a series of failures during a safety drill, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was destroyed by a violent explosion. The explosion sent radiation throughout Europe and the detection of radiation in Europe was the first sign that something had gone wrong at the then-USSR plant.

While the failed reactor is no longer burning, it and the nearby radioactive waste remains a grave threat to people near and around the plant. A 20-mile radius was drawn around the plant; referred to as the “exclusion zone”, this heavily contaminated area has been closed to human habitation since the 1986 disaster.  While the plant was covered in concrete after the disaster to lock additional radioactive debris from leaving the area, it was observed to be breaking-down in the 1990s,  allowing for radioactivity to leave the plant. Due to that, a new shelter was built and slid over the site to better confine radioactive matter; construction started in 2010 and was completed in 2019.

While a new shelter exists, the site and nearby radioactive waste containment areas need ongoing monitoring and service. According to several news reports,the experts that typically man the Chernobyl site have been kidnapped by Russian troops.

Ukranian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, announced at a press conference on Friday that 92 members  of the Chernobyl plant personnel are being held hostage by Russian forces. Without crews regularly maintaining the facility, there are grave risks and dangers of fresh nuclear disasters at the site.  The responsibility of the power plant now “relies on Russian forces and Russian army,” Markarova said. Ukraine is reaching out to all nuclear regulators and other countries to alert them to the situation at Chernobyl, she added.

“In defending these plants, we are trying to be very responsible and careful so there is no damage to it. We can’t say the same about the Russian federation, so that’s why we are warning and that’s why we’re reaching out to everyone,” Markarova said.

The White House condemned the hostile invasion of the nuclear disaster site and requested the release of hostages.

“We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. “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. We condemn it and we request their release.”

Radiation at the Chernobyl site spiked to 20x the normal readings for the area yesterday. However, those elevated readings could be more indicative of radioactive dust being kicked-up by troops than a fresh release at the nuclear power plant or nearby nuclear waste storage facilities.  The Ukrainian Nuclear Agency said the movement of heavy military equipment through the exclusion zone could be enough on its own to set off the alarms.

The sensors indicate radiation levels are over 2,000 nanoSieverts per hour. This measures the exposure and dose of radiation expected to be absorbed by a person there. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),  humans typically see 6-83 nanoSieverts per hour of radiation from natural surroundings.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, believes that the Chernobyl site was seized as part of a “possible blackmail” tactic against the West.

“Chernobyl has been seized and I think they will blackmail the West. The President’s Office is preparing a response to possible blackmail through Chernobyl,” Arestovych said in a statement.

Co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, James Acton, told NPR Friday evening that 4 nuclear power plants that are on-line in Ukraine may be an even greater danger for Ukraine, Europe, and the world. Because those active power plants have fresh spent fuel, which is far more radioactive than what is left at Chernobyl today, any military action such as gunfights or shelling at those facilities could create a significant danger.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi called for “maximum restraint” to avoid actions that could put Ukraine’s nuclear facilities at risk.

“In line with its mandate, the IAEA is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power plants and other nuclear-related facilities,” he said in a statement.

The invasion into the Chernobyl site isn’t Russia’s first foray in nuclear incidents in Europe. In June 2020, a mysterious radioactive cloud drifted into Europe. At that time, Lassina Zerbo, the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), shared news that sensors in Sweden have detected three isotopes typically associated with nuclear fission.

“These isotopes are most likely from a civil source. We are able to indicate the likely region of the source, but it’s outside the CTBTO’s mandate to identify the exact origin,” Tweeted Zerbo after the radioactive cloud was detected.

Within this region are two nuclear power plants: Loviisan Voimalaitos in Finland and Leningradskaya Aes in Russia. The Finland plant reported no unusual events at their facility while Russia never shared details about there. A week earlier from this incident,  iodine-131 was measured at the two air filter stations Svanhovd and Viksjøfjell near Kirkenes , which is a short distance from Norway’s border to Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

Scientists monitoring these sensors that tipped-off the presence of an incident in 2020 and the larger original Chernobyl disaster in 1986 will be busy tracking any sign of radioactive activity coming from Ukraine now in the hours and days ahead.

Radioactivity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster eventually did make its way around the globe, blown about by jet streams and air currents around the Earth’s atmosphere. While radioactivity levels were lethal at the exploded reactor, they became diluted as they moved away from the primary disaster site into other countries and continents.

However, if an incident goes unchecked inside Ukraine now, its possible dangerous radiation could spread into NATO member countries in Europe and perhaps beyond.

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