Scientists Concerned about Ukraine War’s Effects on Chernobyl

    05 March 2022

    On the same day that Russian forces began invading Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian troops battled for control of the Chernobyl nuclear center. Ukrainian officials said Russian forces won the battle and took control.

    Chernobyl is the site of the world's most severe nuclear accident. In 1986, a reactor at the nuclear power center exploded and caught fire. The disaster released large amounts of radiation that caused widespread harm to people and other living things in the surrounding area.

    The site is enclosed within a 2,600-square-kilometer restricted area of forest surrounding the former power center, or plant.

    In this file photo, a shelter construction covers the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
    In this file photo, a shelter construction covers the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his nation's forces fought to defend Chernobyl "so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated." The country's Ministry of Environmental Protection warned of a possible new "catastrophe" if those controlling the plant did not effectively protect the area.

    Areas of the plant still contain large amounts of nuclear material in the form of spent fuel and other radioactive waste. Ukrainian officials said last week that radiation levels had increased in areas around the plant after the fighting.

    The Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, said in a statement that the higher radiation levels could have been caused by soil being moved around by heavy military vehicles entering the area. But it added that the levels it measured "remain within the operational range" and presented no danger to the public.

    The IAEA said it was informed on March 2 that Ukrainian employees had remained at the site since Russian forces took control. Ukrainian officials reported to the IAEA that "no operation involving nuclear material" had been carried out at Chernobyl since February 24, the day of Russia's invasion.

    IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said it was extremely important that employees working at the plant "are able to do their job safely and effectively." He called for the personal wellbeing of the workers to be "guaranteed by those who have taken control."

    Russia has not publicly commented on operations at the Chernobyl plant since its forces took control. Several military experts said Russia likely took over the plant because it is on the shortest path from Belarus to Kyiv. Belarus is an ally of Russia and was a launching point for Russian ground troops.

    "It was the quickest way from A to B," James Acton told Reuters. He is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace policy center in Washington, D.C.

    Edwin Lyman is the director of nuclear power safety at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. He told The Associated Press, "I can't imagine how it would be in Russia's interest to allow any facilities at Chernobyl to be damaged."

    Lyman was most worried about spent nuclear fuel stored there. He said if the power to cooling equipment is cut off or fuel storage tanks are damaged, the results could be disastrous.

    Germany's vice chancellor and economy minister, Robert Habeck, told the AP that Russia would not need to take nuclear material from Chernobyl because it already has large supplies of its own.

    Carmel Mothersill is a professor and the Canada research chair in Environmental Radiobiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In an article for The Conversation, she expresses concerns about how the war in Ukraine might affect future research on radioactivity and wildlife in areas around Chernobyl.

    Some studies have found that many forms of wildlife have thrived in the human-free environment around the plant. These include bears, bison, wolves, lynxes, wild horses and many species of birds. But other studies suggest the effects of radiation have caused problems across different species.

    Mothersill and other scientists want to keep studying wildlife populations in areas around Chernobyl. But for this to happen, there needs to be continued collaboration from those in control of the plant to support research operations.

    At the present time, Mothersill said, "None of us knows what will happen to these collaborations that have lasted for years."

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the IAEA and The Conversation.

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    Words in This Story

    tragedy – n. an event or situation that is very sad, often involving death

    catastrophe – n. an extremely bad event that causes a lot of suffering or destruction

    allow – v. to permit

    facility – n. a place where a particular activity happens

    thrive – v. to grow and develop very well

    species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants

    collaboration – n. the activity of working together to create or achieve the same thing