Russia has seized control over the nuclear and radiation facilities at Chernobyl, a move that Ukrainian officials told Motherboard constitutes a war crime and has already kicked up radioactive dust. In a statement to Motherboard, the Ukrainian government said that employees at the facility have been “detained” by Russian forces and are not being allowed to rotate through normal safety protocols.
The Ukrainian government told Motherboard that they are worried about a “planetary environmental disaster.”
The Russian army entered the 1,000-kilometer invasion zone on Thursday from the border with Belarus and quickly captured the area. Olga Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, said on Twitter Friday morning that Ukraine has lost control over nuclear and radiation facilities within Chernobyl.
“This constitutes a great threat to the whole continent,” Stefanishyna tweeted, referencing a section of the Geneva Conventions that the move has violated. Article 56 of the Additional Protocol of 1977 explicitly forbids attack on nuclear facilities and any other “works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes.”
“Nuclear power plants & other objects near, even military ones, must not be attacked, as this could result in the release of hazardous powers & subsequent heavy casualties,” Stefanishyna tweeted. “These violations can be considered as war crimes in the case of grievous losses among the civilian population.”
A spokesperson for Stefanishyna’s office described the current seizure of Chernobyl in a message to Motherboard. They had to cancel a scheduled interview with Motherboard “since I need to go to the shelter. I am in Kyiv, and we are expecting airstrikes any moment.”
“According to the information from Acting Director General of Chornobyl NPP, Valery Seida, in the exclusion zone there is new safe confinement over the ‘Shelter’ facility, power units N1 and N2, which are under decommissioning, spent nuclear fuel storages – SNFS-1, SNFS-2 are taken under the control of the military invaders of Russian Federation,” the spokesperson said.
“For the second day in a row, the occupiers have been detaining the personnel of the Chornobyl NPP station, not allowing them to rotate, as required by technical safety rules. The capture of the station and any military actions there might be a threat to repeat the second Chernobyl, from which Europe is still recovering.”
“It should be noted that the control levels of gamma radiation dose rates in the exclusion zone have already been exceeded due to the violation of the topsoil because of the movement of a large number of heavy military equipment through the exclusion zone and the release of contaminated radioactive dust,” they added. “We emphasize that all the responsibility for nuclear and radiation safety, the condition of the facilities and the further development of the situation in the exclusion zone depends and lies on the invaders. This is one of the most serious threats to Europe today, as any provocation by the Chernobyl invaders during the hybrid war could turn into another planetary environmental disaster.”
Ukrainian officials also confirmed Friday that they had recorded increased levels of radiation from the Chernobyl exclusion zone following Russia’s invasion of the region.
Russia’s entry into Chernobyl stoked concerns that conflict would release nuclear waste that the Ukrainian government has worked hard to contain since the 1986 disaster.
Those concerns have now started to become reality, per a statement from the State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine; on Friday, the Parliament of Ukraine tweeted a map of observation points at which it had observed higher-than-usual levels of gamma radiation within the exclusion zone.
This is likely from Russian military vehicles stirring up radioactive dust in the region, officials at the Ukrainian nuclear agency told Reuters. The agency confirmed the situation was not critically dangerous for Kyiv, the nation’s capital which sits around 100 miles south of Chernobyl, but that it was actively monitoring the situation. An upswelling of dust could travel across the country and into neighboring nations, Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs wrote on Facebook Thursday.
"If the invader’s artillery hits and ruins / damages the collectors of nuclear waste, radioactive nuclear dust can be spread,” the post reads.
Radioactive dust can be inhaled or ingested, can come into contact with the skin or absorbed into the bloodstream through wounds; it’s damaging to cells and DNA, and in the short-term, can cause radiation sickness, with symptom likes nausea and internal bleeding. In the long term, it can lead to illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease. It can also leach into soil and waterways, harming fish and animal populations along the way.
Exposure to this dust amid conflict is dangerous not just for the handful of residents living near the zone, but for soldiers on both sides.
“I seriously hope that they are aware of the facilities storing nuclear waste and they are not being targeted accidentally,” Wim Zwijnenburg, humanitarian disarmament project leader at PAX told Motherboard over the phone.
“It’s a direct risk for troops there if they don’t have particular protection and monitoring of radiation levels,” Zwijnenburg said. “Both the Russian troops and Ukrainian troops, and in particular, volunteers, could be exposed to elevated levels of radiation.”