Chernobyl was one of the first sites of intense fighting in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. Now, though, Russian troops have retreated from Chernobyl and are moving toward Belarus, according to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The IAEA said Russian troops transferred control of the power plant to Ukrainian personnel, and the agency is working to send supplies to ensure safety there. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, is expected to hold a press conference on Friday after meeting with Russian officials on Thursday.
It's unclear exactly why Russian troops are pulling out of the defunct nuclear power plant. The IAEA is exploring whether Russian soldiers experienced radiation poisoning, but Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said the move is likely part of a "larger effort to refit and resupply."
"It's an assessment at this early stage [that] they're going to be repositioned probably into Belarus, to be refit and resupplied and used elsewhere in Ukraine," Kirby said at a press briefing on Thursday.
Whatever the reason, Russian soldiers leaving Chernobyl alleviates ongoing concerns that fighting and Russian troop movements in the region would stir up radioactive particles. Those particles are the result of a 1986 explosion at the power plant, which deposited them in the soil in the exclusion zone that rings the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There are hot spots in the zone that, if disturbed by heavy machinery like, say, tanks, could kick up radiation. The risks were relatively low for it to spread beyond the area. But that radiation posed a risk to troops who were potentially exposed to it, hence the IAEA's concerns.
Properly monitoring radiation at Chernobyl has been a problem since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was only exacerbated by fires that broke out in the exclusion zone late last month. Working conditions for the experts tasked with monitoring radiation also deteriorated under Russian control, with staffers being forced to work long hours that stretched the limits of safety.
Chernobyl isn't the only nuclear site to have come under fire from Russian troops. Forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant last month, which ignited a fire. Luckily, the fire did not unleash any radiation. "It's completely insane to subject a nuclear plant to this kind of an assault," Edwin Lyman, the director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at the time of the attack. Which, well, it does seem like not the best idea.