Chernobyl occupies a special place in the Western cultural imagination as the site of arguably the most infamous nuclear disaster of all time. Which makes Russian forces taking over the power plant and exclusion zone around it on Thursday all the more jarring.
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, tweeted that the Russian occupation of Chernobyl poses a “great threat to the whole continent.” Among the concerns are whether troop movements or more fighting will stir up radiation — something already happening this week — and whether monitoring of the contaminated site will continue.
The site is home to the ghost town of Pripyat as well as the remains of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which saw one of its reactors explode in 1986. Over the decades, it’s taken on an almost mythic quality, a symbol of Cold War hubris and a location frozen in time after tens of thousands of residents were evacuated all but overnight.
Scientists have spent the past three decades working hard to map the radiation hot-spots throughout the plant and surrounding forest, using a variety of technologies. That includes unmanned aerial drones, which were used to map radiation hot-spots in the so-called “Red Forest” near the reactor, as well as more recent tests of robot dogs (yes, those robot dogs) inside the power plant itself in hopes that they could one day be used to clean up waste.
“The robots, particularly the radiation mapping UAVs, have given us high spatial resolution radiation maps of the Chernobyl exclusion zone (CEZ) and similarly inside parts of the plant and other waste storage facilities,” Tom Scott, a professor of materials at the University of Bristol who has helped lead the drone and robot dog work, told Protocol in an email.
To deal with present-day radiation concerns at the plant, the damaged reactor was slipped under what’s known as the “New Safe Confinement” structure in 2019. Staff also remains on site to monitor radiation, as does a network of sensors throughout the exclusion zone.
All those efforts to map the radiation and keep it contained are now in limbo because of the Russian military invasion. Workers monitoring the site have reportedly been taken hostage. "For the second day in a row, the occupiers have been detaining the personnel of the Chornobyl [Nuclear Power Plant] station, not allowing them to rotate, as required by technical safety rules," a Ukrainian official with knowledge of the situation told Protocol.
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said in a statement Friday that the monitoring network in Chernobyl detected an uptick in gamma radiation, which it attributed to a “disturbance of the top layer of soil from movement of a large number of radio heavy military machinery through the Exclusion zone and increase of air pollution.” Data from the network shows sharp spikes in radiation across the area.
Scott said the spike in radiation from troop movements would be a localized concern. However, if fighting reintensified around the site, it could become a bigger problem, particularly if the reactor site itself were attacked or inadvertently hit.
“The NSC structure is not designed to take artillery bombardment,” Scott explained. “Similarly, whilst waste storage facilities are heavily shielded (to block the radiation) they may still be damaged by heavy artillery,” he added. “The worst case scenario would be a fire and radiation release from the plant or one of these other facilities, but it seems that the [Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant] site was taken without much damage.”
Large wildfires ripped through the exclusion zone in 2020, providing a preview of what could happen if the radioactive soil and trees are disturbed. Radiation levels in the area spiked 16 times higher in the aftermath and radioactive isotopes were detected as far away as Belgium, though not at levels that threatened human health. Research published in 2014 warned climate change could further exacerbate the risk of radiation spreading from the site as it heats up and dries out the region’s forests.
Experts told NBC News the most likely reason Russian forces are beelining for the exclusion zone is that it provides a very direct path for troops to move from Belarus into Ukraine and head straight for Kyiv. Russia is also facing the prospect of a protracted guerilla campaign between Russian forces and Ukrainian citizens, many of whom have vowed to take up arms to defend the country, and so locking down one of the biggest sources of radioactive material is also likely a high priority.
“The Russian Federation’s strategy in holding Chernobyl likely involves supporting Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats,” Kristina Hook, a conflict management professor at Kennesaw State University who has done research across the region, told Protocol. “Critically, however, Russia may also view the Chernobyl zone as attractive for its pipeline and storage capacities to disincentivize attacks on military equipment stored near nuclear materials.”
The Ukrainian official said the "hybrid war could turn into another planetary environmental disaster" should the site catch on fire or otherwise be impacted by fighting. The long-term consequences for monitoring and cleanup at the site are also murky. Hook said the Donbas region, where Russia has waged a proxy war since 2014, paints an ominous picture. That region was home to a number of Soviet Union subsurface nuclear test sites.
“Chernobyl’s historic legacy will lead to similar, potentially worse, environmental ramifications,” Hook said. “The Russian Federation’s de facto control over Donbas’ environmental crisis indicates a high likelihood that monitoring and data availability in Chernobyl will collapse, if they continue to hold Chernobyl.”
This story was updated on Feb. 25, 2022 to include comment from a Ukrainian official.