Ukraine reports new fires in Russian-occupied Chernobyl exclusion zone

Officials warn of ‘very serious consequences’ of fires; UN nuclear watchdog has not received live data from site since March 9, says concerned about lack of staff at facility

A man walks past a shelter covering the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
A man walks past a shelter covering the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

New fires have broken out in the exclusion zone around the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is occupied by Russian forces, according to Ukrainian authorities.

“Significant fires have started in the exclusion zone, which can have very serious consequences,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram late Sunday.

“However, today it is impossible to control and extinguish fires in full due to the capture of the exclusion zone by the Russian occupation forces.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Sunday “the situation remained unchanged” in relation to safeguards at Chernobyl and other nuclear plants in Ukraine.

The UN nuclear watchdog last week said forest fires around Chernobyl did not pose a major radiological risk.

Since March 9 the IAEA has not received live data from Chernobyl. It said Sunday it was concerned about the lack of staff turnover at the plant since March 20.

Russian forces seized the plant on February 24, the first day of the invasion.

Chernobyl’s number four reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident which killed hundreds and spread radioactive contamination west across Europe.

The reactor number four building is now encased in a massive double sarcophagus to limit radioactive contamination.

The original sarcophagus, constructed by the Soviets, deteriorated over the years. A new one was built over it and was completed in 2019.

The plant’s other three reactors were gradually shut down after the disaster, the last in 2000.

Ukraine’s energy minister said Monday no leaks of radioactive material have been detected since Russian tanks fired at nuclear power plants in Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia but that nightmares about a nuclear disaster keep him awake at night.

In an interview with one of Corriere della Sera’s correspondents in Kyiv, German Galushchenko was quoted as saying that his country’s nuclear plants “are a constant worry.”

“I haven’t slept for an entire night with the nightmare of nuclear disaster,” said Galushchenko, who is also an official of the state company that manages the nation’s four nuclear power plants.

Referring to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia facilities, Galushchenko said that “luckily both facilities are still in the hands of our technicians, but Russian armored carriers fired against the facilities.” In the interview published Sunday, he called those actions “criminal” and “totally irresponsible.”

Without citing a location, Galushchenko said “another gas pipeline was just hit” and “entire areas are left in the darkness and in the cold, especially in the region of Mariupol.”

He said Russian bombs have left 800,000 homes without electricity and 250,000 homes without gas.

On Saturday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces took control of a town where staff working at the Chernobyl nuclear site live and briefly detained the mayor, sparking protests.

“I have been released. Everything is fine, as far as it is possible under occupation,” Yuri Fomichev, mayor of Slavutych, told AFP by phone, after officials in the Ukraine capital Kyiv announced earlier he had been detained.

Earlier, the military administration of the Kyiv region, which covers Slavutych, announced that Russian troops had entered the town and occupied the municipal hospital.

They also said that the mayor had been detained.

Residents took to the streets, carrying a large blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and heading towards the hospital, the administration said. Russian forces fired into the air and threw stun grenades into the crowd, it added.

It also shared on its Telegram account images in which dozens of people gathered around the Ukrainian flag and chanted: “Glory to Ukraine.”

Later Saturday, Fomichev posted a video on Facebook saying that at least three people had died, without elaborating on what had happened.

“We haven’t yet identified all of them,” he added, but said that civilians were among the dead.

While they had defended their town, they were up against a larger force, he said.

The Chernobyl plant was taken by the Russian army on February 24 on the same day that Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The giant protective dome built over the sarcophagus covering the destroyed fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, April 13, 2021. (Sergei Supinsky/ AFP/ File)

Some 25,000 people live in the town 160 kilometers (99 miles) north of the capital, built after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Saturday it was “closely monitoring the situation” after Ukraine’s nuclear regulator informed it that the town had been seized by Russian forces.

The UN atomic watchdog said it was concerned about the ability of employees at Chernobyl to rotate and return to their homes to rest.

“There has been no staff rotation at the NPP for nearly a week now,” the IAEA said.

The town’s capture comes after the first staff rotation at Chernobyl plant last weekend since Russia took control.

About 100 Ukrainian technicians continued to run the daily operations at the radioactive site for nearly four weeks without being rotated.

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