The road to Chernobyl is strewn with the remains of Russian soldiers’ rations and sometimes shell casings, a worrying reminder of the risks posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the site of the worst nuclear accident in history.
April 26 marked the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the European Union called against a new nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine due to the war.
After weeks of occupation by the Russian army, the site that houses the double sarcophagus that covers the remains of the nuclear power plant’s reactor came back under Ukrainian control.
On the road from Kyiv to Chernobyl, near the border with Belarus, soldiers armed with assault rifles guard checkpoints.
But concern about the nuclear sites in Ukraine is palpable as the Russian invasion, which began on February 24, continues.
Ukrainian authorities said on Tuesday that missiles grazed the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in the south of the country.
The Chernobyl staff “have continued with their work, despite all the difficulties (…) they have stabilized the situation (…) in the sense that the worst has been avoided,” director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi told reporters from the site.
“We still don’t have peace, so we have to continue. The situation is not stable. We must remain vigilant,” he added, warning that the invasion was “very, very dangerous.”
The plant, which was taken by Russian troops on the first day of their invasion, suffered a power and communication outage that raised fears of a new calamity.
On April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl plant, then located in the USSR, exploded. This nuclear accident, which is considered the worst in history, killed hundreds of people and spread radioactive debris across much of Europe.
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The building of reactor 4 is covered by a double sarcophagus to limit radioactivity and the so-called “exclusion zone” within a radius of 30 kilometers around the plant is still almost uninhabited, explain the nuclear authorities.
The road leading to the plant is lined with abandoned buildings. However, some apartments have curtains, there are plants in some windows, and a kiosk with a “Chernobyl Tour Info” sign welcomes people on their way to the plant.
In the kiosk’s fridge, a sign from the days when tourists were welcome offers “Chernobyl ice cream,” with a drawing of a vanilla ice cream cone next to the radiation warning symbol.
Russian troops, who could easily have passed through the post on their way south to kyiv, had planned to stay in Chernobyl, according to Ukrainian officials.
Soldiers dug trenches and set up camps in areas such as the “red forest,” named for the color of its trees after receiving a high dose of radiation.
“The areas with high levels of radiation still remain here, but the contamination was displaced due to the actions of the Russian occupiers using heavy military vehicles,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky told reporters who visited the site.
The original sarcophagus, from Soviet times, has deteriorated over the years, so a new sarcophagus was built on top of it, which was completed in 2019.
But for some locals, risk is part of life.
“If they (the Russians) wanted to blow it up, they could do it when they were running away,” said Valeriy Slutsky, 75, who says he witnessed the 1986 plant disaster. “Maybe I’m used to (radiation),” he added while shrugging.
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