Ukraine Warns of Terror Plot Against Chernobyl Power Plant, Experts Skeptical

It’s hard to know what to make of the announcement, and to judge what any impacts might be.
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Image: Edward Neyburg/Getty Images

Ukrainian defense officials have made the alarming allegation that Russian troops are preparing a terrorist attack at Chernobyl, though there’s currently no public evidence that anything is planned there.

The Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine announced on its Facebook page Friday morning that it was anticipating a “technological catastrophe” at the Russian-controlled areas of the plant. Chernobyl was first invaded at the beginning of the war, on Feb. 24, and has been occupied by the Russian military ever since. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN nuclear watchdog group, confirmed Thursday that it had lost communication with the plant entirely. 

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On Friday afternoon, the state nuclear inspectorate of Ukraine confirmed that it had yet to restore its automated monitoring system for radiation around the Chernobyl exclusion zone—the approximately 1,000-square-mile radius around the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster—but that “an additional supply of diesel fuel for diesel generators ensuring emergency power supply to the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities … was delivered” to the plant.

Nuclear energy experts Motherboard spoke to are increasingly unsure how to talk about the nuclear threat in Ukraine caused by the war. Ukraine has many active nuclear power plants, and Russian forces have focused on seizing some of them, which has led to mass panic and warnings from the Ukrainian government about potential nuclear disaster. While it is decidedly bad for a war to be happening near nuclear power plants, experts have said that the actual risk of disaster has been highly overstated by a Ukrainian government that is understandably seeking international condemnation and aid related to Russia’s war.

Given that context, it’s hard to know what to make of the new pronouncement of a terror threat in Chernobyl. To this point, Ukrainian officials have issued a number of stark warnings about the risk of radioactive disaster that experts have met with more measured interpretations of risk; last week’s invasion of the Zaporizhzhia power plant was initially announced by the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Relations as having the potential to be “10x greater than Chornobyl,” for example, a claim that nuclear experts said was exaggerated soon after. 

The IAEA was unable to provide any specific update on the status of spent nuclear fuel in Chernobyl in response to Motherboard’s request for comment. The spent nuclear fuel—the material that goes into reactors to create energy, and is stored in large pools after it is no longer useful—which constitutes the bulk of radioactive material in the facility is likely old enough that it poses lower risk of radiation than that in a newer, actively-operating plant, experts Motherboard spoke to said.

Radioactive material has already been released around the facility, primarily via military activity like the movement of trucks and troops, experts have posited. It is unclear at this stage what harm a full-fledged attack on Chernobyl would inflict on the region or the world.