Chernobyl Radiation Levels Rise After Russian Invasion

One of the abandoned Chernobyl reactors.
One of the abandoned Chernobyl reactors. Edward Neyburg / Moment / Getty Images

Radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear plant spiked above control levels, Ukraine warned on Friday.

The announcement came the day after Russian forces captured the infamous plant on Thursday during the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported Thursday. 

“The control levels of gamma radiation dose rate in the Exclusion zone were exceeded,” the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said in a statement early Friday reported by The Washington Post. 

The nuclear facilities and other facilities at the site were not damaged, the statement said. Instead, the raised levels likely had to do with the military presence itself. 

“Experts of the Ecocenter connect this with 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,” an updated statement from the inspectorate said. 

Chernobyl was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history in 1986 when explosions and fires at the plant let a radioactive cloud loose over parts of Europe, The Washington Post explained. Contaminated soil and other fallout remains at the so-called Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a 1,000-square mile stretch of forest surrounding the doomed plant. The plant itself is around 62 miles from Kyiv, according to Reuters. 

Readings close to the reactor on Thursday rose by about 20 times, from the standard three microsieverts per hour to 65, BBC News reported. 

“If the dose rates recorded correspond to real values, the situation is extremely worrying,” French nuclear watchdog CRIIRAD told Reuters. However, the group said it was conducting its own research, and that the higher readings could have many causes, including interference from cyberattacks. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the public was not in danger because of the higher readings. 

Sheffield University nuclear materials expert professor Claire Corkhill agreed that the spike was likely caused by the movement of military vehicles kicking up radiation.

“These buildings are designed for containment, to keep radioactive materials inside, but they’re not necessarily armoured: they’re not designed to operate in a war zone,” Corkhill told BBC News.

However, she thought a new nuclear disaster at the site was “extremely unlikely.” Instead, a greater danger is posed by fighting near Ukraine’s working nuclear power plants. 

“Chernobyl is inside a large exclusion zone, and the uninhabited space would mitigate the consequences of a second nuclear accident there. Ukraine’s other reactors are not similarly isolated,” James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote. “Moreover, much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl. To put it simply, nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones.”

CRIIRAD said the country could enhance safety by shutting down working reactors, but this is difficult because Ukraine gets 50 percent of its power from nuclear energy, according to Reuters. 

Ukraine told IAEA Friday that its reactors were working “safely and securely,” BBC News reported. 

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