For weeks, Russian troops occupied the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant. An insider report now describes these weeks between two dangers: enemy soldiers and radioactive waste. The second part describes the first days of the occupation.
Valeriy Semenov is an agile, energetic, and talkative man in his late 40s with a gaunt face and a big, broad smile. He was born near the city of Saratov: “I don’t want to say Russia, because at that time it was the USSR.” His hometown was poor; he recalls a store with “empty refrigerators and three pomegranates and the skeleton of a cow that had no meat left on its bones.” When Semenov was 13, his parents moved to Slavutych to work as liquidators. At the age of 18 he followed them and himself joined a team cleaning up radioactive waste.
His superior was Walentyn Geiko, with whom he was to run the plant under Russian occupation almost 30 years later. He has now spent his entire working life in Chernobyl. He has degrees in Engineering and Physics and has worked in most departments at the plant: fuel storage, radioactive waste management, radiation monitoring and – finally – safety.
I met Semenov in Slavutych four days after his return from Chernobyl. His whole life, from an early age, he said, prepared him for his role under occupation. Even though he was exhausted, his stories just gushed out of him. He had grabbed pen and paper to draw diagrams of the site: ‘The administration building was here, look, my building – no, I can’t tell you the name of my building. It’s a secret! – was here.” Sometimes he walked around the room, gesturing to explain technical details and measuring distances with his hands.
In April I spoke to Semenov for several days. During this time, the Ukrainian secret service also conducted a debriefing with him. “But with you I have to filter that a bit,” he said with a wink. “Some things concern national security.”
In the first days of the occupation, the Russians tried to gain access to all sorts of doors and gates with their ID cards. Semenov replied: “Look at the photos on the walls if you want to look at something. If you want nuclear waste, I can put some in your pocket!”
400-500 Russian soldiers were stationed at the power plant site and in the surrounding area, consisting of regular troops, mostly from Buryatia on the Mongolian border, riot police and the Russian National Guard, which is normally deployed domestically. None of them wore badges or ranks on their uniforms.
The soldiers stationed in the power station acted cautiously; those stationed in the nearby laboratories and administration buildings looted and vandalized during the occupation. They stole excavators, forest machines, special vehicles for transporting nuclear waste and every car they could find. They ransacked labs and offices, ripped out servers and stole laptops, cameras and projection equipment. They stole kettles and alarm clocks from the dorm rooms and cutlery from the canteens. The occupiers also dug trenches around the heavily contaminated area of the Red Forest, where much of the radioactive debris had landed.
Several officials from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, arrived. Semenov got the impression that they had an even higher status than the generals. He watched them remove boxes from the site a few times. “I have no idea what they were up to,” he said, laughing. “I think they were looking for those American bioweapons labs” (a key part of Russian propaganda).
Kutenko, a man in his 30s with a broad, handsome face and a clean-shaven head and beard, told me that while staff have been trained for fires, floods, earthquakes and radiation leaks, they are not prepared for an invasion.
It was obvious that the Russians had orders not to harass the plant’s employees, he reports. Ukrainians generally avoided the Russians, but asked them from time to time: “What are you doing here? What do you want here? Why don’t you just go home!” The soldiers usually only answered with a murmur and walked away. Sometimes they said they were coming to rid Ukraine of radicals, or simply said they had orders to obey.
Semenow warned his employees not to risk a fight or even take pictures with their cell phones. “I had to keep everything calm and composed. I didn’t want to provoke her. It was very important to maintain their trust.” He saw his main task as “balancing the safety of the plant and the personnel”. He knew the staff were angry with the squatters. “There were difficult moments… People – Ukrainians – were ready for anything.”
The Russian troops had assumed that their “special operation” would be short-lived. That’s why they hadn’t brought much food: one Russian soldier admitted he’d only packed a single uniform, believing it was an exercise. Others asked Semenow where they could buy cigarettes. “They said, ‘Why aren’t there any shops around here?’ I said, ‘This is a restricted area!’ They didn’t know where they were.”
The Ukrainians exaggerated the danger of radiation in order to put a stop to Russian attempts at control. They advised the Russians to stay away from certain “problem areas”. “That was the bold plan,” said Kutenko, “but it worked.” At the same time, they in no way prevented the Russians from putting themselves in danger.
In the first days of the war, a long convoy of vehicles heading towards Kyiv kicked up a large amount of dust, and Kutenko’s team registered increased levels of radiation. “Radiation was higher than usual, but not at critical levels. It was within safety limits,” he reported. “Have you informed the Russians?” I asked him. He smiled. “No.”
The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “The inside story of Chernobyl during the Russian occupation” and was translated by Charlotte Zink.