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Risk of Chernobyl catastrophe is ‘real,’ experts say

Ukrainian confirmation that Russian troops have taken control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is prompting fears that fighting in the area could lead to environmental disaster.

“The risk of an accidental shooting causing a real nuclear disaster is real,” said Yves Marignac, a French nuclear expert with the association Négawatt.

The nuclear reactors at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s most destructive nuclear disaster in 1986, are not operational, but its storage facility contains some 20,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste. If the facility were to be hit by heavy weaponry, it could suffer damage that causes a “significant” amount of radioactive material to be released into the atmosphere at a local level, “potentially further than the exclusion zone,” Marignac said.

That would have serious consequences for the local population, as the ongoing conflict would likely make their evacuation more difficult, he added.

In a briefing note circulated Friday afternoon, the Mission of Ukraine to the EU warned that spent fuel could also be turned into a weapon. “In the terrible hands of the aggressor, this significant amount of plutonium-239 could turn into a nuclear bomb, which will turn thousands of hectares into a dead lifeless desert.”

Interfax reported Russian defense ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov saying military forces reached an agreement with the power plant’s personnel to ensure the security of the facility. He added that “radiation levels are normal” and that the “personnel continues to operate the power plant as usual and to monitor radiation levels.”

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine reported high levels of radioactivity around the nuclear power plant on Friday morning. It attributed these exceeding levels to “disturbance of the top layer of soil from movement of a large number of radio heavy military machinery through the Exclusion zone and increase of air pollution.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Friday it had assessed the readings and concluded that they “are low and remain within the operational range measured in the Exclusion Zone since it was established” and “do not pose any danger to the public.”

The city of Prypiat, the closest urban area to the plant, on Friday recorded levels of gamma radiation almost 10 times higher than previous days, reaching 10,200 nanoSievert per hour.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA’s director general, said in a statement Thursday that the agency was watching the situation in Ukraine “with grave concern” and “closely monitoring developments.” He called “for maximum restraint to avoid any action that may put the country’s nuclear facilities at risk” and stressed that attacking nuclear facilities is against international law.

The IAEA said its counterpart in Ukraine reported “there had been no casualties nor destruction at the industrial site.”

Louise Liénard, spokesperson for the Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control, said the current risk to EU countries was minimal. “The situation is under control” and was unlikely to cause pollution beyond the immediate area, she said, though she added that could change depending on “the identified [radioactive] releases in the air, the weather.”

The greater risk comes from Ukraine’s four active nuclear facilities, according to James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who pointed out that “much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl.”

If one of the active plants was hit by heavy fire, it “could have consequences on a European scale,” said Marignac, the French nuclear expert.

Energoatom, the company operating nuclear power plants in Ukraine, said Thursday the facilities were operating normally and that electricity generation was stable.

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