CHERNOBIL, Ukraine (AP) — Thirty-six years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Tuesday that Russian troops’ seizure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as “very, very dangerous” risks causing an accident. Ukraine.
The agency’s Director-General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said that while radiation levels are normal, the situation is still “not stable”, wearing a blue IAEA jacket and standing under an orange umbrella during the rains outside the damaged nuclear power plant. He said nuclear authorities “must be on the alert”.
Russian troops entered the radiation-contaminated Chernobyl exclusion zone on their way to the Ukrainian capital in February. They withdrew last month as Russia pulled its forces out of areas near Kyiv and focused on fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The site has since fallen into Ukrainian hands, and broken communications have been restored.
Ukrainian officials said Russian occupiers held factory workers at gunpoint during a marathon shift that lasted more than a month, with staff sleeping at desks and eating only twice a day.
Grossi congratulated the workers for reducing potential risks, including power cuts, during the occupation.
“I don’t know if we were very close to disaster, but the situation was absolutely abnormal and very very dangerous,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pointed to the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on Twitter, saying that “not everyone realizes” the dangers of nuclear power.
“Now, Russia’s actions at Ukrainian nuclear power plants threaten humanity with a new catastrophe.”
The explosion and fire at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986 sent radioactive material into the atmosphere and became the symbol of the Soviet Union’s stumbling final years. The international community, including Russia, has spent billions to stabilize and secure the region.
The unit where the explosion and fire occurred was covered with a state-of-the-art enclosure. But the dangers at the plant remain, as spent nuclear fuel rods require 24-hour maintenance. Fuel comes from the plant’s four reactors, all now closed.
Russian forces continue to hold Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. The conflict damaged the training facility of the Zaporizhzhia plant in early March.
An Associated Press reporter who visited Chernobyl this month saw evidence of Russian soldiers digging trenches and churning highly contaminated soil in the forested Chernobyl exclusion zone in the early hours of the invasion.
IAEA team members on site for repairs and assessments on Tuesday carried black suitcases from their vans to the Chernobyl buildings. They brought dosimeters and other radiation monitoring equipment, Grossi said.
There is a lot of work to be done after the occupation of this factory,” he said. “We need to do some repair work so we can re-establish our connection with Vienna so we can provide good information to the people of Ukraine and the rest of the world.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, is located in the Austrian capital.
During the Russian occupation, Chernobyl lost its normal electricity supply. Plant workers relied on diesel generators to supplement the critical circulation water to cool the spent nuclear fuel.
When asked if the dangers posed by the Russian invasion were similar to those that followed the first Chernobyl accident, Grossi replied: “In that case you had an explosion, you had a working reactor. The situation was completely different. In this case, we had a nuclear safety situation that was not normal, which could turn into an accident.”
Responding to public concerns about the risks of nuclear energy during wars, Grossi told reporters that “it’s not nuclear energy”. The problem is war.”
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