Future Tense

The Russians Seized Chernobyl. Should We Be Terrified?

Troops in white camo wield guns and kneel on snow
Ukrainian troops conducting exercises near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Feb. 4. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

As part of the broader invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces captured Chernobyl on Thursday after a battle at the shuttered power plant, which is best known as the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. The plant, which is to the north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, is still highly radioactive, and further tumult there could be dangerous for the wider region. “After the absolutely senseless attack of the Russians in this direction, it is impossible to say that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe,” said Ukrainian presidential adviser Myhailo Podolyak, who announced the news of the capture. Earlier in the day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke out against the assault on the plant.

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Is all of this … as bad as it might sound? Here’s what you need to know about the nuclear dead zone that just changed hands.

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Remind me what happened in Chernobyl again?

On April 26, 1986, a group of engineers in what was then Soviet-ruled Ukraine ran an ill-conceived safety test that resulted in several explosions at Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 and a partial meltdown of the core. The accident released 400 times more radiation than the nuclear bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. Dozens of firefighters and workers at the plant died at the time of the disaster, and the resulting radiation affected thousands more in the aftermath.

What was the state of the plant up until the invasion?

There hasn’t been a functioning reactor at Chernobyl since 2000, and Ukraine had designated the approximately 1,000-square-mile area around the plant as an off-limits exclusion zone. There is little human activity in the area, save for some locals who declined to evacuate or resettled there after the disaster. A small tourism industry has also taken root in the area.

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In 2016, about 30 countries including the U.S. funded the construction of a new $1.7 billion, 36,000-ton structure called the New Safe Confinement that was placed over reactor No. 4 to seal off the radioactive material, as the concrete shelter that had originally been constructed there in 1986 was developing cracks. Ukraine was put in charge of the structure’s maintenance in 2020.

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How was the plant captured?

Because the shortest route from the Russian border to Kyiv passes through Chernobyl, Ukraine deployed security forces to keep watch over the area two months ago. However, the New York Times reported that the Ukrainian troops were mostly serving as scouts and wouldn’t be able to fend off an invasion. On the first day of the invasion, Russian special forces and airborne troops attacked the site. A spokesperson for the agency that maintains the exclusion zone told CNN that the staffers who manage the plant had already left by then. While the full details of what led to the capture are still unclear, Ukrainian presidential adviser Podolyak said that there was a fierce battle between the opposing forces, and the Times reports that fighting took place in the marshes surrounding the plant. RT, the Russian state-controlled news outlet that’s been accused of spreading propaganda, reported that the Kremlin had neither confirmed nor denied the capture.

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What are the risks to the soldiers at the site?

According to the Times, soldiers in the area won’t face much harm from the radioactive particles decaying in the ground or under the reactor’s enclosures as long as they don’t spend too much time in patches where radiation is high. The Ukrainian soldiers sent to the area in the lead-up to the invasion carried around devices on lanyards that continuously monitored their exposure levels.

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What are the risks to the broader region?

A Ukrainian interior adviser told the Times that damage to the nuclear waste storage facilities could result in radioactive dust spreading throughout Ukraine, Belarus, and the European Union. While gunfire or explosions damaging the nuclear waste storage or reactors could be a threat, a physicist at the University of Liverpool told New Scientist that it would likely take a deliberate attack on the structures to release nuclear material. The New Safe Confinement that was placed over reactor No. 4 should be able to withstand a tornado. A scientist at Chernobyl also told New Scientist shortly before the invasion that monitoring would continue, and that the rise in emission of neutrons from the reactor, an important safety metric, would only be detectable in April. The nonprofit American Nuclear Society announced that it was monitoring the situation, and that the currently available information indicates that the fighting has not resulted in any additional radiological dangers in the region.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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