Russian withdrawal reveals ‘crazy’ scene at Chernobyl factory

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By Vasco Cotovio, Frederick Pleitgen, Byron Blunt and Daria Markina | CNN

The sudden deafening beep of a radiation meter fills the room as a Ukrainian soldier enters. This is where Russian soldiers lived at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and radiation levels are now higher than normal.

There is no visible presence of the source of the radioactive material in the room, but Ukrainian officials say it came from small particles and dust the soldiers brought into the building.

“They went to the Red Forest and brought radioactive material back on their shoes,” explains Private Ihor Ugolkov. “Other places are fine, but here the radiation increased because they lived here.”

CNN was given exclusive access to the power plant for the first time since it returned to Ukrainian control.

Factory officials explain that the levels in the chamber used by Russian soldiers are only slightly higher than what the World Nuclear Association describes as naturally occurring radiation. Single contact would not be dangerous, but continuous exposure would pose a health hazard.

“They went everywhere, and they also took some radioactive dust with them [when they left]’ added Ugolkov.

It is an example of what Ukrainian officials say was the lax and careless behavior of Russian soldiers while they were in control of the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. The area around Chernobyl, namely the Red Forest, is still the most nuclear contaminated area on Earth, with most radioactive particles on the bottom.

Ukrainian officials have released drone footage of what they believe were trenches dug by Russian soldiers in that area, which is highly radioactive. In a safe location, on the edge of that area, CNN spotted a Russian military ration box that showed radiation levels 50 times higher than naturally occurring values.

Russian soldiers held Chernobyl for a month and are believed to have spent most of the time operating in contaminated areas.

“It’s really crazy,” Ukraine’s Energy Minister, German Galushchenko, told CNN at the factory. “I really have no idea why they did it (going to the Red Forest).

“But we can see that they went in there. The soldiers who went there came back here and the radiation level increased.”

Although Chernobyl is not an active power plant, the sarcophagus above the reactor that exploded nearly 36 years ago must be maintained to prevent further radiation leaks. There is also a significant amount of spent fuel that needs to be cared for.

“That confinement should have electricity, it should have a ventilation system, and so on,” explains Galushchenko. “If the country has no control over this, and we are responsible, Ukraine is responsible for security, of course that is a threat.”

Part of that threat also came from the way Russian soldiers put in charge of those responsible for maintaining the nuclear facilities.

[Our staff] were here from the first day of occupation and only had the opportunity to be replaced a month later,” he says. “When people are physically and morally exhausted, when you’re threatened with weapons, and you have this daily pressure from the soldiers, it’s a really difficult task.”

Volodymyr Falshovnyk, 64, is a Chernobyl squad manager. He returned to the power plant on March 20, when the Russian military allowed the weary staff to rotate with their colleagues from the nearby town of Slavutych, where many of the factory workers live.

He says the staff were working under enormous pressure, not only because of what happened in Chernobyl, but also because of the news they received from the outside world.

“Our relatives started calling and saying that the city was being stormed, that there were injuries and deaths,” he says. “We asked the Russians what was going on and they said there were no regular Russian troops, but we kept hearing that there was shelling.”

Falshovnyk also accused the Russian soldiers of looting the power plant.

“They gave our Rosatom (Russian Nuclear Agency) personnel to escort us, and in their escort we toured the uncovered warehouses. They’ve been robbing these warehouses all the time,” he adds.

Operating under those conditions was intense, but nothing compared to what the security personnel endured.

According to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, the 169 soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard, who guarded the facility, were locked in the factory’s Cold War-era underground nuclear bunker, crammed into cramped spaces with no access to natural light, fresh air. or communication with the outside world. †

“They were held here for 30 days without adequate lighting and food. They were not allowed to go outside. On the last day they were taken from here in an unknown direction,” says Denys Monastyrskyy standing in the bunker.

The minister says he thinks the men were brought to Russia via Belarus as prisoners of war, but is not sure.

“Today, unfortunately, we don’t know anything about their fate,” he says.

CNN was shown inside the bunker and other places usually occupied by the factory’s staff by Ukrainian officials who claimed that Russian soldiers looted the place. Clothing, hygiene supplies and other personal belongings were scattered on the floor.

“The Russian army searched all Ukrainian clothing, personal belongings, such as dogs, looking for, probably, money, valuables, laptops,” Monastyrskyy continued. “There was looting here. The Russian army has stolen computers and equipment.”

Moscow has said very little about what its soldiers have done in Chernobyl. The last time the Russian Defense Ministry mentioned the nuclear site was on February 26. It confirmed its capture and claimed that it had made arrangements to ensure the safety of the power plants, the sarcophagus and a spent fuel storage facility.

Chernobyl is not an isolated case

Ukrainian officials say the conduct of the Russian military and the treatment of Ukrainian personnel at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant highlights the danger of invading Moscow as it gains control of factories in other areas.

In addition to the decommissioned reactors at Chernobyl, Ukraine has four active nuclear power plants, including the largest in Europe in Zaporizhzhya. The Russian army occupied that facility in early March when it took control of the area, shelling some of the site’s buildings in the process.

“The situation there is also terrible, especially when you consider how they took Zaporizhzhya because they fired heavy weapons at the station,” said Energy Minister Galushchenko.

“It really is an act of nuclear terrorism,” he adds. “I don’t agree that they are firing well at the stations as a situation at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, but if we don’t have the ability to be responsible for nuclear safety, there is a threat.”

And despite Ukraine regaining control of Chernobyl, Ukrainian officials fear Russian soldiers could try to come back.

“We understand that any moment today we must be ready for another attack on a nuclear power plant. We will use the best world experience to ensure the station is protected as the border is only a few tens of kilometers away,” Interior Minister Monastyrskyy said.

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