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 first part describes the day of the conquest.
On February 22, four friends in their 20s went on an illegal trek through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They planned on highlining – crossing ropes over dizzying precipices – to promote their fun via Instagram. They had previously been on independent forays into Chernobyl, and on the evening of February 23 they made camp on the 15th floor of a building in Pripyat – the city abandoned after the 1986 nuclear disaster. They got up early the next morning with a plan to stretch their rope between two of the tallest blocks of flats.
Shortly before 5 a.m. they heard the first bombs. Missiles flew overhead and the silhouettes of fighter jets streaked across the gloomy sky. They knew they had to go. When they got to the first checkpoint outside of Pripyat, they saw the taillights of a car moving away. There was no Chernobyl special unit at the second checkpoint, only civilian security officers who made an unsafe impression. As it began to get light, an air raid siren sounded. The guards advised them to go to the main administration building.
At 8 a.m., Walentyn Geiko, the shift supervisor at the power plant, sounded an emergency alarm. He telephoned the department heads on the ground and briefed them on reports of explosions across Ukraine and sightings of Russian planes over Chernobyl. Anton Kutenko, who was in charge of nuclear waste disposal, called his wife, who was taking care of their two little kids
The end of the night shift was scheduled for 9 a.m. when a train was to take the workers back to the satellite town of Slavutych, which was in charge of the power plant. Historically and geographically, this line runs through a tiny piece of Belarus, from where Russia launched the invasion (the train does not stop there and no passport controls are required). Word soon came that part of the tracks had been removed and the road bridge over the Dnieper River blown up. The shift change has been cancelled. 103 employees were on duty at the station. Nobody could go home anymore.
A little later, four young men with GoPro cameras, knives and a drone appeared at the entrance of the main building. They explained that they had camped and asked for an evacuation. Security chief Valery Semenov was inclined to believe their story, although he jokingly remarked that they looked like a bunch of saboteurs. He knew, however, that there was no chance for her to escape. According to reports, Russian tanks had already been sighted in the south. He decided to lock her in the basement.
Air raid sirens wailed for the rest of the day. Most of the employees were ordered to the bunker under the main building. Along with a single colleague, Kutenko remained in front of the monitors that recorded temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure in the various security areas.
At 4:15 p.m., Semenow noticed a blob moving rapidly across one of the 25 screens in front of him. He approached from the Belarusian border. “I could tell by the outline and the amount of dust that it was a heavy military vehicle,” Semenow said. Another misshapen apparition followed, then the distinct outlines of three armored personnel carriers and a convoy of trucks. On another screen, Semenov saw men in black uniforms disembark at a checkpoint.
Within three minutes, Russian troops were at the gates. They drove their vehicles, including a tank, in front of the building. Semenow viewed the surveillance video and informed Geiko that nine intruders were breaching the main turnstile. “Yes, I can see them through the window,” Geiko said. “They’re pointing their guns at me.”
Chernobyl is a symbol of serious failure. At the same time, it is a place of courage, sacrifice and effort. Those who work there take pride in and affection for this strange, dangerous place. The staff maintain awareness of the accident and the dead, but also of the principle of renewal that the place embodies today. Here people were contaminated and forced to walk. In their absence, the site has become a kind of Eden, where nature has healed itself. The forests are teeming with bears, moose and wolves, and vegetation has spread to the deserted town.
Block 4 of the nuclear reactor exploded on April 26, 1986. It was the worst nuclear accident in history, measured by the death toll and the cost of the cleanup. The detonation melted the nuclear fuel, burned through the reactor envelope, and fused into a glassy mass of nuclear lava. More than 130 firefighters and engineers were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness, 30 of whom died. As a result, reactor block 4 was covered with a concrete sarcophagus weighing around 30,000 tons in order to contain the radioactivity. An exclusion zone with a radius of 30 km – half in Ukraine, half in Belarus – is one of the most contaminated places on earth. The radioactive fallout caused cancer and birth defects. Normal background radiation levels in Ukraine can reach 300 nanosieverts per hour; within the zone the value is 10,000 nanosieverts per hour.
During the first months after the explosion, thousands of engineers and workers from across the Soviet Union helped clean up. These people, known as “Liquidators,” were hailed as heroes. Since Prypiat was uninhabitable, a new city was created with Slavutych, in which the newcomers and the personnel of the plant were accommodated. (The other reactors remained undamaged, so Chernobyl continued to operate as a power plant until its decommissioning in 2000).
Slavutych is a pretty town in a pine forest between the border with Belarus and the Dnieper River. It was established in cooperation between the various republics of the Soviet Union; Architects from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania and Uzbekistan, but also from Russia and the Ukraine contributed to the design of the individual districts.
But the clean-up work is not yet complete. The power plant currently employs 2,600 people — cooks, engineers, paramedics, security guards — and about 6,000 others work in the offices and labs and in the dormitories and shops that serve them. There are also two fire stations in the exclusion zone for emergencies at the power plant and for fighting forest fires in summer. Before the pandemic, more than 100,000 tourists visited the city annually. According to a travel guide, you can safely spend between one and five days in Pripyat, depending on your radiation exposure.
“It’s the past, the present and the future,” explains biologist Kateryna Shavanova, who has been conducting research at Chernobyl for the past decade. “There’s the Lenin statue and the Soviet-era dormitories that we’re staying in… And then there’s this new arch over the destroyed reactor that represents really cutting-edge technology.”
In the week before Ukraine was invaded, the number of soldiers stationed at Chernobyl doubled to over 170. After the Russians arrived, Ukrainians lined up to surrender their arms. Meanwhile, negotiations for control of the plant began. Geiko, Semenov and two army commanders represented the Ukrainian side; the Russian negotiators were composed of a general and a colonel. Semenow saw the general’s cheeks twitch with apparent tension.
Geiko explained that Chernobyl is a particularly dangerous facility because of the many sources of radiation in the area. He insisted that he and his Ukrainian associates maintain operational control. The hearing lasted almost three hours. Meanwhile, Semenov could hear the engine sounds of a military convoy heading south towards Kyiv.
The Ukrainians knew that an exchange of fire inside the facility could have catastrophic consequences: equipment could be damaged and key technicians could be injured. They were also aware that they were now far beyond enemy lines. There was no chance that the Ukrainian army could free them.
Semenov suggested giving Russian soldiers access to the administration building and some other areas. “We wanted to lock down the facility for them as much as possible. It was particularly important to keep them away from the power blocks, a complex of buildings used to service the decommissioned reactors. “This is the cockpit,” he explained, “the area you want to keep terrorists out of.”
Geiko and Semenov wore down the Russians with descriptions of protocols, contingencies, and dire warnings. In this way, they managed to convince them that the safety of the plant could not be guaranteed if firearms were allowed in the operating areas. “We achieved our negotiation goals. They lived with us according to our rules,” reports Semenow. 170 passes were issued to Russians, but only 15 of them were allowed access to the radioactive waste area. There were so many soldiers in the corridor that Semenov had to step over them to get to the toilet.
At that moment, Semenow remembered the highliners in the basement. He went down the stairs and unlocked the door. “There has been a regime change,” he announced. “The Russians have taken over the plant.”
The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “The inside story of Chernobyl during the Russian occupation” and was translated by Charlotte Zink.
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