Occupied Chornobyl: the 25-day shift15 June 2022
In February, Russian forces took control of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and its surroundings. Olexiy Kovynyev reflects on the events and what it meant for those working on site.
IN 1986, THE CHORNOBYL NUCLEAR plant — the first nuclear power plant in the territory of Soviet Ukraine — consisted of four RBMK-type units (uranium-graphite channel reactor), each with a capacity of 1000MWe. Units 5 and 6 were still under construction. After the accident at unit 4, the other units were modernised and gradually decommissioned. The last unit was completely shut down in 2000.
Since then, the station has been in a state of decommissioning. About 20,000 nuclear fuel assemblies were unloaded from the units and transferred to a wet spent fuel storage facility commissioned in 1986. Activities to transport the fuel to a newly-built dry storage facility have begun.
Unit 4, which had suffered the accident, was covered with a reinforced concrete sarcophagus in the autumn of 1986. In 2016, a huge arch (the New Safe Confinement) was installed over it — the world’s largest moveable structure.
A large area around the Chornobyl plant is an exclusion zone and is being managed by the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management. In recent decades numerous research projects have been carried out there with the participation of many international organisations. And the area has also emerged as a tourist attraction.
In 2022 Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear utility, was expected to put into operation a centralised storage facility for spent fuel from operating plants, near the Chornobyl plant. Previously, spent fuel was transported to Russia for reprocessing — a scheme in place since the existence of the USSR.
About 3000 people work at the Chornobyl site today. Most of the staff live in Slavutych (a town with around 25,000 inhabitants). This satellite town was built in 1988 after the accident and is 50km from the plant. The old satellite town of Pripyat became a ghost town after the complete evacuation of all residents immediately after the accident (about 50,000 people), and is now slowly decaying, becoming a unique place for tourism. In 2019, before the pandemic, Pripyat was visited by about 120,000 tourists.
The staff travel to the station by a 30-minute train ride, which passes (without stopping) through the territory of Belarus. In 1988, Ukraine and Belarus were part of a single country, and crossing administrative borders did not create problems. Since 1991, the state border has been real but the issue had been settled. Since 24 February, this has been the territory of a country from which the invasion was launched and possibly the source of future problems.
Every night and day shift lasts for 12 hours and sees some 150-200 employees attend the site.
After 23 February
On 23 February the night shift arrived at the station and began routine duties and operations. The next morning the events began that shook the whole world. Russian forces had invaded Ukraine.
Due to the fighting in this region, the train from Slavutych was cancelled and the day shift crew did not arrive at the station. Soon Russian troops approached the plant. A detachment of the National Guard of Ukraine guards the station, equipped with small arms to manage local problems. They could not resist an army with tanks and artillery. By noon, Russian military equipment had appeared at the station. The national guardsmen were disarmed.
It was Thursday, a normal working day.
The plant shift supervisor announced the implementation of an emergency readiness plan, which is normally used in the case of a radiation accident or other emergencies. There are no scenarios designed to manage war in this plan.
There was no new shift to hand over to, so notes were made in the operational logs to that effect. Instead of handover, staff remained at their workplaces and continued to perform routine duties.
Two reasonable questions arise: why was it necessary to seize the nuclear power plant; and how did it happen so quickly?
Finding answers is not very difficult. One of the shortest routes to reach Kyiv from Belarus passes through the exclusion zone. The landscaped and well-maintained area around the station was a convenient element in terms of military logistics. In addition, the capture of a nuclear plant fits well with the need to report quick military victories. The fact that this is a non-operational plant with a destroyed reactor, and surrounded by contaminated territory, seems not to have been taken into account in Russian military strategies.
If Russia had simply asked, Ukraine would likely have happily donated the Chornobyl plant, which requires significant annual expenditures — without the territory, of course.
The speed of the “capture” is explained by the geographical location: the plant is just 12km from the border with Belarus.
The ‘guests’ occupied the administrative building and organised a military headquarters there. The plant shift supervisor held negotiations, the result of which was an understanding that changes for the better should not be expected. Exploding artillery shells were heard in the distance, the sky was constantly being crossed by Russian warplanes and the terrible word ‘war’ entered the consciousness of the people of Ukraine.
On that day, and regularly thereafter, the air raid warning sirens were sounded at the plant. Although the walls of many buildings are thick enough to offer considerable protection, the staff felt terrible.
There was no shift change the next day either, and on the third or fourth day it was understood that the situation could last for an indefinite period. The staff optimised their activities, resting and sleeping as much as possible, every 12 hours making notes in the operational logs as they passed the shift to themselves.
The station does not have any places provided for rest, so the staff had to sleep where they could. Chornobyl station had effectively become a prison. There were a lot of everyday problems, especially in terms of hygiene, but people endured.
Mobile communication with families saved them from nervous overstrain but anxiety about them increased every day. Of course, the physical and psychological stress was very high.
At this time, Russian state media reported that Ukraine was close to building a plutonium-based “dirty bomb” at Chornobyl.
The station did not have any substantial stocks of food. The plant staff had to use anything they could find and cut rations. The catering staff on a night shift are minimal, so staff from other departments had to be engaged to prepare meals on the following days.
One day the invaders offered humanitarian aid to the staff — food. This is a standard element of interaction between the Russian army and the inhabitants of territories where its presence, to put it mildly, creates supply problems. The staff refused to participate so the ‘guests’ found sets of clothes in the warehouse and were filmed receiving the aid instead.
The station staff had to constantly negotiate with the Russian military about the admission of personnel to carry out some works. The staff were especially restricted in their movements at night. For this reason, and also because of the lack of proper rest, night work was minimised. The rest of the station activities went almost as planned.
The ‘guests’ also conducted regular interrogations. They wanted to know how the station was run and tried to get information about procedures and documents. It is difficult to call such ‘conversations’ with armed people pleasant, especially when their ‘colleagues’ are bombing your country’s territory at the same time.
Nobody knows how many Russian soldiers were at the station. According to some estimates, at one point there were more than 1000. Military trucks full of people were constantly coming and going. The Russian military on the site did not apply radiation protection measures. They went everywhere in their uniform and shoes.
Over the two weeks, due to hostilities and emerging fires, power lines gradually failed. Regional power staff made every effort to keep the lines in operation but very often this was not possible. The staff began to prepare for a station blackout.
On 9 March, the last 750kV line was switched off. To cope with this eventuality, there are high-powered emergency diesel generators at the site. All of them successfully turned on and powered important equipment. The staff manually powered their additional equipment.
Simultaneously, the town of Slavutych was left without electricity. People began to cook food on the streets on open fires. The station staff had practically lost contact with their families.
Restoring Ukrainian power lines was difficult — it was dangerous and required lengthy approvals from the Russian military for permits necessary for repair crews. In addition, due to the fighting, power could not be restored for long.
After five days of negotiations, the Chornobyl plant was energised from Belarus. At the request of the staff, Slavutych was also energised.
On 20 March, after long negotiations and agreed safe routes, a new shift crew arrived at the plant. The longest shift in the history of nuclear energy had ended. It had lasted 25 days or 600 hours. People finally came home — exhausted, bearded but happy.
Unfortunately, even then some of the staff remained at the station because they could not get to Chernihiv and Kyiv — fierce battles were still raging there.
Unlike in Western traditions, in this part of the world a nuclear power plant and the town where its staff live are, as a rule, a single entity. Satellite towns were built simultaneously with the station. Therefore, the story of the station will be incomplete without the story of the town.
Slavutych suffered from the same problems as many other Ukrainian cities — isolation, shortages of food and medicine, problems with communications and community services, curfews, evacuation of some residents after agreeing on ‘green corridors’ and much more. Slavutych is only 36km in a straight line or 50km by road from Chernihiv — the nearest regional centre — which was subjected to particularly severe attacks and bombardments.
Indeed, the Chornobyl staff returned to a completely different town. Moreover, three days after their return, the Russian military entered the town. Members of the territorial defence mounted a resistance, and four of them were killed. The town residents went to a protest rally where stun grenades and shooting into the air were used against them. After a few tense days, the Russians left.
On 31 March, after 36 days, the Russian military left the Chornobyl plant and moved in columns towards Belarus. Before they left, they forced the plant shift supervisor to sign a certificate of acceptance and transfer of the power plant guard, which specifically stated that the personnel had no complaints. It was posted on the internet to the surprise of the whole world. The Russians took with them 169 national guardsmen who had been kept at the station all this time. Their fate is still unknown.
The station continued its life under new conditions. While waiting for the sappers, personnel were forbidden to enter the areas in which the Russians had been staying.
In the first days after the invasion of Ukraine, radiological monitoring systems in the exclusion zone recorded an increase in the level of gamma radiation. It is assumed this was caused by the movement of heavy military equipment which raised radioactive dust into the air.
After the departure of the Russian military, information appeared about their activity in the so-called Red Forest, the most polluted place in the entire exclusion zone. It was subsequently confirmed by aerial photography.
During the 1986 accident, significant radiation fallout had landed in this pine forest. The trees could not stand the doses received — their needles died and turned a rusty red colour. The forest was eventually cut down and buried in the soil. In 1987, the radiation dose there was up to 30 roentgen per hour (the maximum allowable annual dose for nuclear personnel is about 2 roentgen). Even now, in this place, a person can receive an annual dose of radiation in a day. If you disturb the soil then the exposure increases many times. Where the raised dust is inhaled it will cause internal exposure.
This is where the Russian military reportedly dug in, building defensive structures and trenches and hiding tanks. Later, information appeared that a lot of Russian soldiers had been taken to the Gomel Centre for Radiation Medicine of Belarus.
Even where these activities have not been independently confirmed, in general, many thousands of Russian military vehicles passed through the exclusion zone.
Bitter jokes have appeared on social networks, pointing out that the Russians can leave Chornobyl, but Chornobyl will not leave them.
It is worth mentioning the situation in the village of Chornobyl — a small town 15km from the station that gave its name to the plant. Before the 1986 accident about 13,000 people lived there. For many years it has been used for activities of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management and the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants.
More recently, it had been a Russian headquarters for about 500 people. Almost all the office premises were damaged, smashed and plundered. Computers, office equipment and special clothing were removed. The long- term archive of the Chornobyl plant was also destroyed.
A modern analytical laboratory, a unique complex of research and development in radioactive waste management technologies was destroyed. Worth some €6 million, it had been equipped with EU funds.
Exemplary radioactive solutions, calibration sources of ionising radiation and samples of fuel-containing materials from the plant were also damaged and stolen.
The radiation monitoring system of the exclusion zone no longer operates because the servers that processed this information have disappeared.
At the site now
Leaving the site the ‘guests’ took with them some of the office equipment and several containers of repair equipment and spare parts. The administrative premises require restoration work and data on the losses and damages are not yet complete.
Activities at the plant continue. All necessary plant equipment is in operation and radiation control and monitoring systems are operating normally. Personnel transport from Slavutych to the plant is now being carried out by boat along the Pripyat River. Currently there are no other safe routes.
All this seems unbelievable in the 21st century. For the first time in the history of the use of atomic energy, one country seized another’s nuclear power plant and used it to deploy its troops. So far, there have been no catastrophic consequences (at the time of writing Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant remains occupied).
Nuclear power plants are designed to withstand an aircraft crash, but those designs do not consider hostilities within station territory.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed serious concern, but it has no real influence on the situation.
Emergency plans can be supplemented, stocks of fuel and materials can be increased, and additional facilities for personnel can be created, but so far one conclusion suggests itself — peaceful nuclear energy is not ready for such challenges.
It is too early to learn lessons. The war in Ukraine continues.
Author information: Olexiy Kovynyev, independent expert, former reactor operator and shift supervisor, Energodar Ukraine