Russian troops managed to capture the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in just a few hours. Why is the NPP not a place for hostilities, and how do the acts of the invaders threaten not only the nuclear security of Ukraine, but that of the whole world?
Moment before catastrophe
It took several hours for Russian troops to seize territory as big as Luxembourg. They needed to do only two things. First, destroy border guards armed only with assault rifles with artillery fire from the territory of Belarus.
And then, drive through the empty forest unobstructed in a giant column of tanks and bump up against the gates of the Chornobyl NPP that was guarded by a hundred and a half of the National Guard soldiers armed with small arms.
A nuclear power plant is not a place for hostilities. It stores 2,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel — 12 times more than in 1986, when a terrible accident occured. So it was natural that the Ukrainian National Guardsmen were forced to surrender without fighting. After all, if Russian tanks started firing, just one wrong hit in a nuclear facility could lead to a global catastrophe.
Russian troops tried to advance to the capital of Ukraine in the shortest and most dangerous way — through the Chernobyl zone contaminated with radiation.
The fact that the nuclear power plant survived may be called a miracle. After all, the Russian army used it not as a civilian facility, but as a military one for 36 days.
Forgetting about all possible rules of law and international obligations, the Russians began to dig deep trenches around the perimeter of the exclusion zone, as well as build fortifications for tanks and cannons. Next to the blown up Fourth Reactor, a command post was built.
The Energoatom company published drone footage showing objects resembling military fortifications and trenches in the Red Forest, one of the most radioactive places in the exclusion zone.
For more than a month, the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant has become an ammunition storage site. And the surrounding area turned to the battlefield with all that implies: constant shelling, destruction, pressure on the population, and killings.
On March 9, during the fighting, the Russians damaged the power supply of the Chornobyl NPP and the storage of spent nuclear fuel, sufficient for 13 nuclear reactors.
Energoatom warned that prolonged de-energization of the storage facility could lead to overheating and evaporation of radioactive substances. As a result, radiation could contaminate not only Ukraine but the whole of Europe, as well as Belarus and Russia.
Reporting note during the accident of power supply lines at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on March 9, 2022
Together with the NPP, about 2,400 station employees became hostages of the occupiers. These people were the only ones to care about radiation safety as best as they could. ChNPP engineer Valeriy Semenov recalls how during the power outage he tried to find fuel to maintain the generator — and at his own risk he stole it from the Russian military. Fortunately, four days later Ukraine resumed electricity supplies.
On the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky presented state awards to workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, who ensured safety at the nuclear power plant and worked 600 consecutive hours at gunpoint and without respite
The RF’s complete unwillingness to consider the consequences of a possible catastrophe is showcased by the fact that the Russian army did not even care about their own safety: the military did not use protective clothing, dosimeters or personal protective equipment.
During the occupation, hundreds of Russian vehicles passed through the radiation-contaminated area. At the same time, the occupiers moved along routes that are prohibited for use due to high levels of radiation. And in certain directions they conducted large-scale hostilities.
"No radiation control of vehicles and servicemen was carried out," adds Anatoliy Nosovsky, director of the Institute for Nuclear Safety of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. "And the vehicles themselves moved not only on asphalt roads, but also on the ground, raising radioactive dust. Therefore, after their capitulation, they took radioactively contaminated equipment to their military bases. "
Energoatom commented on the long-awaited withdrawal of Russian troops from the Chornobyl Zone not only with joy but also with sarcasm:
"Organised convoys have left the Chornobyl NPP and its satellite town of Slavutych. Only the most ‘resistant’ invaders have stayed yet. The most greedy ones, to be precise. Those who within record-breaking undertime struggle to grab everything that possesses any value. A sort of a final chord of the ‘special operation’."
Maksym Shevchuk, the Deputy Head of the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management, says that looting was an integral part of the occupiers' work schedule:
"The Russians had a clear schedule: every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they walked around looting. During the 35 days of occupation, they entered the buildings several times.
Anatoliy Nosovky, the Director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants of the NAS of Ukraine shows the result of the invading troops’ presence in his laboratory facilities in Chornobyl: doors are knocked in, windows smashed, metal safes broken into and looted.
"And this is an empty closet that contained a server for radiation situation monitoring", he shows. "It was stolen. Laboratory equipment was robbed and destroyed. SD cards were stolen from computers."
While sorting out the mess in their laboratories and offices, scientists are sad to note that apart from office equipment, Russian troops have destroyed documents and archives that professionals have been collecting for decades.
The consequences of the presence of Russian troops on the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Other enterprises on the ChNPP territory look the same. Because of the marks from the shelling, offices and dormitories in Chornobyl resemble a sieve. The whole infrastructure is damaged, including bridges, roads, and communication. The Russians stole more than 200 specialised vehicles, including those for carrying radioactive waste and fighting forest fires.
According to Energoatom estimates, the Russian army during the month of their stay in Chornobyl alone caused losses of tens of billions hryvnias. In addition, they left behind mined areas.
Working with missiles whizzing around
The decision to expose the whole world to a nuclear catastrophe was made at the highest level of the Russian leadership. For instance, the order to shell the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia NPP, was given by Major General Alexey Dombrovsky, Deputy Chief of the National Guard of the Russian Federation in Krasnodar Krai.
The Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) of Ukraine has already served him in absentia with the notice of charges of violating the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder.
"As a commander he directly took part in capturing the city and nuclear power plant together with two battalion tactical groups of the Armed Forces and the National Guard of Russia. As a result of the enemy attack, four Ukrainian citizens were killed , technologically important networks and service lines were destroyed," the OPG notes.
Russian Major General Aleksey Dombrovsky led the operation to capture the city of Energodar, where the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is located.
During the shelling, the nuclear plant personnel tried to "get through to" the invaders using a loudspeaker and warning system:
"Cease firing on the nuclear-hazardous facility! You are threatening the safety of the whole world!"
But the Russian Army didn’t hear their calls: around 50 shells hit the NPP’s power units and adjacent buildings, but fortunately the ammunition didn’t explode.
Besides, several buildings were completely destroyed. Including the ZNPP Training and Education Centre and Atomenergomash, a service division that used to produce and repair the equipment for the power plant.
"As a result of the invasion and the shelling of sites an external threat to the lives of ZNPP employees arose, equipment, buildings and facilities, pipelines, and structures were damaged significantly," said Danylo Lavrenov, the Secretary of the Ukrainian Nuclear Society, one of the largest sectoral organisations in Europe. "This is the basis for the increasing threat of a nuclear accident."
On April 28, 2022, Russian troops damaged the high-voltage line of the Zaporizhzhya NPP. As a result, the station was moved to a minimum level of capacity — sufficient only to meet its own needs.
"A licence to operate an NPP is issued on the grounds of a safety report, which clearly stipulates safety conditions. But these safety conditions do not exist today, and the facility is working", says veteran of nuclear energy Mykola Shteinberg. "That is, the entire ZNPP is outside the legal framework. We do not have international agreements, treaties, conventions that stipulate the rules for the NPPs’ operation during wartime. The international nuclear security regime is absent and destroyed. And this issue needs to be addressed around the world. "
The barbaric seizure of the Zaporizhzhia NPP shocked the whole Ukrainian society. The President of Ukraine, ministers, and MPs appealed to international partners and organizations to stop acts of nuclear terrorism in Ukraine and to recognize the Russian Federation as a nuclear terrorist country.
"The way the Zaporizhzhia plant was seized, it was simply an out, the nuclear terrorism in its true colors," Minister for Energy German Galushchenko comments. "The occupiers fired from tanks and mortars. Then the shells that did not explode were collected, taken beyond the perimeter of the station and blown up near the training building, which is also insanity in terms of nuclear safety. There can be no nuclear safety with shells near nuclear reactors!"
Now there are representatives of Rosatom, the Russian state corporation for nuclear energy, the Rosgvardiya military and the FSB military at the Zaporizhzhia NPP.
ZNPP Director General Petro Kotin says that on the first day of the nuclear power plant capture, representatives of the so-called military-civil administration came to the plant, gathered its management and said that it was now a Rosatom station, and it no longer belonged to Ukraine; they said they had come there to stay, so the nuclear power plant had to operate in accordance with Rosatom's decrees.
From that moment on, the invaders haven’t formally interfered in the work of the station, but the personnel are forced to coordinate all technical decisions with the Russian military commander.
At the entrance to the ZNPP, all employees are carefully checked by the armed occupiers, and their phones are confiscated. According to Kotin, there are 11 Rosatom employees:
"They work at the crisis centre and almost never leave it. They don’t take part in the operation of the plant and are mainly engaged in studying documents and regulations. By the way, the very fact that the Russians are at the crisis centre is already a violation. After all, the crisis centre is used in case of an emergency: the leadership has to move there and operate the power unit from there".
Due to constant shelling and the presence of Russian troops, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe has become the greatest threat to the whole world.
And an emergency can happen at any moment: hostilities in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast continue, Russian missiles regularly fly over the nuclear plant. The Russian units are now headed by Major General Valeriy Vasilyev, the Chief of the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Protection Forces of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
He and several hundred other Russian servicemen constantly are garrisoned at the station and placed several dozen pieces of military vehicles and ammunition there. And Andrey Gorbunov, the chief engineer of the Russian Rostov NPP, declared himself the Russian manager of ZNPP.
ZNPP employees are working under intense pressure. They are not allowed out of the city, they are interrogated, and the invaders try to convince them that the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine are self-defence against the created threats.
The occupying authorities have announced that it will write off all debts on bank loans, utility debts, and the cost of gas and heating will decrease to Russia's level. They ask not to take part in rallies, and when people gather for protests, they open fire at them.
"Our goal is to hold a referendum and create conditions for the unification of the Russian Federation and Ukraine, two fraternal peoples," reads the leaflets posted around the city.
Russian authorities try to put puppet collaborators in leading positions. For instance, ZNPP engineer Andriy Shevchyk proclaimed himself the chairman of the newly established "Civic Council of the Town Self-Organisation", which was to perform the functions of the town government in cooperation with the Russian occupiers.
After that, the Zaporizhzhia Oblast Prosecutor's Office served him with the notice of charges of treason.
Residents of Energodar tried not to let infidels into the city: thousands of people came out and blocked the road for Russian vehicles. After that, the Russians began to shoot at people, and finally captured the city. Despite the fact that the occupiers repainted the name of the city at the entrance to the Russian tricolor, the residents of the city paint patriotic inscriptions in blue and yellow paint as a sign of resistance to the Russian occupiers.
During the conference, Yaroslav Yemelianenko, a representative of the Chornobyl Tourism Association, read out a written appeal from Enerhodar residents to the world:
"We, Enerhodar residents, come to work because the station has to operate. But we work when rifles and machine-guns are pointed at people. It's very difficult in terms of morale. People can't risk to rally because of the threat of terrorist attacks on ZNPP. It's about the safety not only of our people, but of the whole world. The orcs must leave the city. We are waiting for the reaction of the whole world."
Ukrainian scientists from the Center for Radiation Accident Forecasting of the Ukrhydrometcenter are calculating the trajectory of the spread of polluted air in the event of an accident at the Zaporizhzhya NPP. Radiation can spread thousands of kilometers — in the direction where air masses will move on the day of the disaster.
Grossi’s parallel world
During three months of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s missiles flew over four nuclear power plants: the Chornobyl, the Zaporizhzhia, the Khmelnytsky, and the South-Ukrainian ones.
Lately, Russia has used low-precision missiles for bombardments. As a result, missiles worth millions of dollars hit rivers, playgrounds, and public toilets instead of military facilities.
Therefore, the probability of a "random" missile hitting a nuclear reactor is very high.
In the language of the UN Security Council, the situation sounds like a "global threat to nuclear security." And in simple words, the world is on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe.
"This is the first time in history that a nuclear-developed country has suffered such aggression. This is an act of nuclear terrorism, when the occupiers shelled our nuclear facilities. This has never happened before, and no one expected that it could happen," explains Petro Kotin, Director General of the Zaporizhzhia NPP.
The Russian Federation and Ukraine are parties to the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. These documents state that it is a crime to use or damage a nuclear facility in such a way as to endanger the release of radioactive material.
The world regulator in the field of nuclear safety is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its inspectors must determine whether nuclear facilities are or are not being used for military purposes. And it is this organisation that should be the first to declare a global threat to nuclear security over the shelling of Ukrainian nuclear power plants by Russian troops, and immediately appeal to the UN Security Council. At least so says its charter.
The UN Security Council is a permanent body of the United Nations with responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. In practice, this means that the Security Council can:
- impose sanctions against the violating state,
- conduct military operations against the aggressor state,
- send peacekeeping formations to conflict zones.
At the same time, the decisions of the Security Council are binding on all states that are members of the UN.
However, the IAEA failed to appeal to the UN Security Council. Watching the events in Ukraine day after day, IAEA chairman Rafael Grossi calles the safety situation at the Ukrainian nuclear power plants "stable."
When it comes to missiles flying over the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Grossi tells the reporters:
"We are verifying this. We have to be one hundred percent sure."
IAEA President Rafael Grossi called the situation at Ukrainian nuclear power plants stable and assured:
'Zaporizhzhya ranks first on the list, which worries me when it comes to the situation with nuclear facilities in Ukraine'.
Ukraine cannot convene an emergency session of the UN Security Council either, because it is not a member of this collegial body.
The Ukraine authorities instead made a public address to the IAEA and a number of international organizations calling to recognize the activities of the Russian Federation the act of nuclear terrorism and help in creating 30-km demilitarized zone around nuclear facilities. For there should be no tanks, no military men, and no ammunition depots. And so that missiles would not fly over nuclear facilities.
The IAEA receives not only official appeals from Ukraine regarding the catastrophic situation at the nuclear power plant due to Russian aggression.
Users leave hundreds of comments under each post on the IAEA head Rafael Grossi’s Facebook page with the only call to protect Ukraine from the nuclear terrorism of the Fussian Federation. Grossi doesn’t reply to these comments.
"I told Grossi that for us, the political signs from IAEA are important — there are no positions of neutrality at war," explains the Ukraine’s energy minister German Galushchenko. "We insisted that the first and primary element of nuclear safety is the withdrawal of the Russian military from our nuclear facilities. We cannot speak of nuclear safety while the Russian invading troops are there."
However, the IAEA stance is permanently optimistic. During his visit to Ukraine, Grossi thanked the NPP workers for their "endurance and firmness in these extremely hard times" and presented them dosimeters and accumulators.
Rafael Grossi during a visit to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 2022. He brought dosimeters as a gift.
Later the IAEA reported in public that they are going to assist Ukraine by granting it equipment for nuclear facilities, radiation measuring devices, shielding materials, and diesel generators. And the Ministry of Health of Ukraine noted that the IAEA had asked them for a report about the impact of the actions of Russian troops at NPPs in order to help them find funds to compensate for damage.
Two weeks later, at the joint session of the Foreign Committee and Defence and Security Sub-Committee of the European Parliament, Grossi one more time reassured everyone:
"We have come to the conclusion that levels of risks have increased a little, but they are far from dangerous situations."
It is rather strange to hear that from Grossi. After all, he understands well for sure how dangerous nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities are. While still a student, he visited the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki that had experienced atomic bombardments. In his interview for the Japanese media he recalled how he was stunned by meeting survivors of the atomic bomb:
"I was touched by this experience…"
So why has the IAEA not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine yet and continues to collaborate with Rosatom?
Courtesy behind Ukraine’s back
The IAEA is an enormous entity where about 2,600 employees from more than one hundred countries work.
Since 2019, the organisation is led by an Argentinian Rafael Grossi. Among six of his deputies there is a Russian Federation citizen Mikhail Chudakov. This graduate nuclear engineer previously held a number of executive positions in the Russian atomic enterprise Rosenergoatom and worked on various posts at NPPs. And now he leads one of the key IAEA subdivisions, the Department of Nuclear Energy. The Department’s objective is to support the actual and new nuclear programmes around the globe.
The IAEA maintains warm relations with Rosatom representatives even after Russian troops seized Ukrainian nuclear power plants. In the photo on the left — Rafael Grossi and Russia's ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov (far left), in the photo on the right — Rafael Grossi (pictured — right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. A red line highlights a photo of Russian — IAEA Deputy Chairman Mikhail Chudakov.
Apart from Chudakov, there are other Russians in the IAEA managemen who influence their decision, says Petro Kotin. Therefore, during the meeting with Grossi, the Ukrainian side insisted that the IAEA required representatives of Russia's Rosatom to leave Ukrainian nuclear power plants immediately and that citizens of the Russian Federation not participate in decision-making and international missions in Ukraine.
Instead, Grossi not only failed to suspend the Russians from Ukrainian issues, but, on the contrary, agreed with Rosatom on "cooperation to ensure the maximum safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine."
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspection of Ukraine was outraged by this decision, to put it mildly:
"The acts of nuclear terrorism committed by Russia on the territory of Ukraine are incompatible with safety issues, and in fact, the aggressor country cannot speak of any, let alone nuclear and radiation safety."
However, it seems that the IAEA is not very worried about the critical remarks of Ukrainian nuclear scientists. While Russian missiles flew over Ukrainian nuclear power plants, Rafael Grossi met several times with representatives of the Russian Federation without Ukraine's participation. And after any meeting, the IAEA did not express their discontent regarding the actions of Russian troops and did not call on Russia to stop using weapons near nuclear facilities.
On March 9, at the meeting with the IAEA Board of Governors, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organisations, justified shooting on the Zaporizhzhia NPP’s premises, because "the Russian units guarding the plant’s perimeter were attacked by the Ukrainian saboteurs and were forced to ward them off by return fire." However, he did not provide any evidence that those saboteurs did exist.
On April 1, in Kaliningrad, Russia, Grossi met with Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev. There they discussed the safety of Ukraine's nuclear facilities. After the meeting, Grossi not only failed to demand leaving the Ukrainian atomic facility, but, quite the contrary, thanked Likhachev "for operational cooperation and partnership":
"I can say generally that the situation is under control, but there are things that need clarification. The agency will work to clarify the situation and assess it," Grossi said.
IAEA and Rosatom leadership meeting in Kaliningrad on April 1, 2022
On May 4, Grossi met Likhachev, this time in Istanbul. During this meeting, the IAEA representative asked the Russians to organise a technical mission to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant for the agency's specialists. As if Russia was the owner of this plant.
Expressing its good attitude towards Russia, despite the war of aggression, the IAEA continues to invite to its conferences and working groups representatives of a key Russian state body that regulates nuclear facilities — the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Supervision (Rostekhnadzor).
For instance, on April 11, Rostekhnadzor discussed amendments to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Facilities with the IAEA.
On April 13, Rostekhnadzor voiced its ideas regarding nuclear safety during a meeting of the steering committee and working groups of the IAEA Forum on Small Modular Reactors.
On April 22, Rostekhnadzor took part in the 51st meeting of the IAEA Commission on Security Standards. On the same day, Russian scientists presented 70 reports at the IAEA conference on FR-22 fast reactors.
On May 4-6, 2022, the IAEA hosted the Fourth Extraordinary Meeting of the Contracting Parties to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Representatives of the Russian Federation also took part in this meeting.
On May 12, the executives of Rostekhnadzor and the IAEA held a meeting on the international "initiative for harmonisation and standardisation in the field of nuclear energy." At the time, Rafael Grossi stressed that "the participation of Russia, a country that is actively developing the nuclear energy sector, is very important for the successful achievement of this goal."
Iran is more important
Analysing the statements and actions of the IAEA, it becomes obvious that currently the biggest headache of this organisation is not Ukraine, but Iran, which is inches away from creating nuclear weapons. Iran itself produces uranium — the main element of a nuclear bomb. At its plants, Iran enriches uranium at 20% level.
At the same time, Behruza Kamalvandi, representative of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, claims that Iran can "easily" increase uranium enrichment to 90%. For comparison: to create a nuclear bomb, the uranium content must be at least 80%.
After all, the most important direction of the organisation's activities is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And it seems that for this purpose the IAEA is ready for anything.
Raphael Grossi is not a nuclear energy scientist, but a chartered diplomat. And, holding various positions, he devoted many years to resolving the "Iranian issue." As deputy head of the IAEA in 2010-2013, Grossi failed negotiations with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
So right now he has a chance to show his effectiveness in this matter.
90 km from the capital of Iran there is a uranium enrichment plant. At the end of 2020, the construction of a new underground facility began. The IAEA does not comment on the purpose of the construction.
Iran and six international mediators (the USA, Russia, Britain, France, the The People's Republic of China, and Germany) have been trying for many months to bridge differences over Iran's nuclear program by agreeing on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In 2022, the IAEA plans to test whether Iran is fulfilling its obligations to the UN Security Council not to develop nuclear weapons.
At last the parties to the agreement were able to smooth away the rough edges: they introduced important restrictions to the nuclear program and lifted economic sanctions against Iran.
For the agreement to work, all parties must sign it. In particular, the signature should be appended by a representative of the Russian Federation — a reliable partner and ally of Iran. But the question is, whether Russia will want to do so if the IAEA openly criticises it and dismisses Russian personnel from working in the organisation for its aggression at Ukrainian nuclear power plants?
Moreover, the IAEA is well aware that Russia, like no other, can influence Iran's capricious position. After all, Russia and Iran are long-standing partners in the field of nuclear energy. Rosatom built the first and the only NPP in Iran so far. And now Iran is completely dependent on supplies of Russian nuclear fuel for this NPP. In addition, only Rosatom provides services to support the safe operation of existing nuclear facilities.
In addition, Russia is responsible for controlling Iran's enriched uranium surplus and transforming the Fordow nuclear power plant into a research facility. In other words, it carefully monitors that the Iranians do not develop nuclear weapons under the guise of scientific research.
The ceremony of the beginning of work on the construction site of the power unit №2 of the Bushehr NPP with the participation of Russia in Iran, 2016
That is why it is always emphasised during the meetings of the Rosatom management and Grossi that the conversation, "as always, was warm, businesslike and very focused. Russia and the IAEA are time-tested partners."
The IAEA continues to meet with the Russian leadership in order to discuss Iran's nuclear program, even during the aggressive invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. That is why the IAEA does not respond to Ukraine's request to exclude Russian representatives from the organisation's management.
Instead, Grossi meets with Russia's representative in IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov a few days after Russian troops shell Europe's largest nuclear facility, the Zaporizhzhia NPP. The Iranian issue is apparently more important to the IAEA now than a potential nuclear disaster.