On the morning of February 24, 2022, the troops of the Russian army began the invasion of Ukraine. For weeks there was speculation about the possibility of an invasion through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The area, scene of the largest nuclear accident in history in April 1986, remains one of the most radioactive places on the planet.
In the first hours of the invasion it seemed that the Russian army could avoid Chernobyl. It was announced that columns of armored vehicles had entered Ukraine and were heading towards Chernihiv/Chernigov, the main city east of Chernobyl. Throughout the morning, the entry of more troops from Belarus was reported, through the small border post of Vilcha, to the west of the Exclusion Zone.
During the afternoon the Russian troops took control of the Exclusion Zone and the Chernobyl nuclear complex. Ukrainian sources, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, reported heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops in the area. Russian military sources speak of the seizure of Chernobyl without much opposition. It is difficult to know today how events unfolded.
The atomic energy regulatory body of Ukraine announced that after the seizure of the plant, the nuclear complex operators were still at their posts and that the facilities had not suffered any damage. The complex consists not only of Reactor 4 with its containment building, but also Reactors 1, 2 and 3 and the SNF-1 and SNF-2 used fuel storage buildings. Some 22,000 units of nuclear fuel remain in Chernobyl.
The possibility of fighting in Chernobyl and the loss of control of the nuclear complex by the Ukrainian authorities increased the concern about the state of the facilities and the radiation in the surroundings. All the information that currently exists ensures that the facilities are in perfect condition and have not suffered any damage. Hours after the capture of Chernobyl, several of the automatic radiation sensors registered significant increases in their measurements.
The recorded increase in radiation levels is associated with the passage of a large number of heavy vehicles through the area in the direction of Kiev. These vehicles would have raised a large amount of dust and mobilized some radioactive particles from the ground. It is important to note that this increase remains well below the limits considered dangerous for health. The registered radiation levels are still much lower, for example, than those of many commonly performed medical tests (mammograms, scanners…).
An intense movement of dust could cause a problem in the event that a highly active radioactive particle (“hot particles” of plutonium) is ingested. This effect is unlikely and in any case limited to a very local scale.
There is no reason to fear that the plant’s fuel could be used to create a dirty bomb, much less a nuclear bomb. That material does not have the necessary enrichment for it. In addition, Russia has its own very large nuclear arsenal. The occupation of Chernobyl can be understood from a strategic and perhaps symbolic point of view.
In short, there must be peace of mind regarding the state of the Chernobyl facilities, the material housed there and the radiation in the area. The concern regarding the occupation of Ukraine should be focused on other scenarios.
Hopefully the situation will return to normal soon and Chernobyl can continue to be a place dedicated to the memory of the accident and where we can continue to dedicate ourselves with our Ukrainian colleagues to study and conservation of its rich biodiversity.
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read here the original version.