Chernobyl: Why did Russian troops take control of infamous nuclear disaster site?

Officials say that Moscow now controls area in northern Ukraine after fire fight

Graeme Massie,Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 09 March 2022 11:56
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Ukrainian ambassador warns about Russia capturing Chernobyl nuclear power plant

It is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and now Ukrainian officials say that the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is under Russian control.

The reactor at Chernobyl infamously melted down in April 1986 during a test, covering much of Europe in a radioactive cloud.

At that time, Ukraine remained a part of the Soviet Union, and to this day a highly protected 20-mile exclusion zone had existed around the site, which entombs a highly dangerous amount of nuclear material.

So why would Vladimir Putin have prioritised it for capture and control by his advancing troops?

Tracey German, a professor in conflict and security at the King’s Russia Institute, told The Independent this could be down to the site’s location.

“It lies on a direct route from Belarus down to Kyiv and would therefore be passed by Russian forces invading from the north,” she said. “If it wasn’t in this location, I don’t think Russian forces would be looking to secure it.”

The defunct nuclear site is situated in northern Ukraine just several miles inside the border and around 80 miles north of the embattled country’s capital.

“Chernobyl is the shortest route from Russia to Kyiv. The facility is not the goal,” tweeted CNN analyst and national security expert Juliette Kayyem.

Ukraine observers also say that Chernobyl sits on the western side of the Pripyat river, which merges with the Dneiper river just north of Kiev. The site therefore becomes strategically important for the western flank of Russian troops if they eventually circle the city.

Dr Ross Peel, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London’s also suggested the threat posed by war could also play a role.

“I’d suggest the main motivation is they want to get the site secured. It’s not generating power at all and has no value that I can think of – I think the main motivation is they want to keep it safe from anything that might breach it,” he told The Independent.

“Prolonged fighting in the area only creates danger of the containment being breached and radiation escaping, so they want to prevent anything happening to it.”

But Ukraine’s nuclear agency and interior ministry on 25 February said they were recording increased radiation levels from the site of the defunct nuclear power plant.

Experts at the state nuclear agency said the change was due to the movement of heavy military equipment in the area lifting radioactive dust into the air.

“It is not critical for Kyiv for the time being, but we are monitoring,” the interior ministry said.

Other observers have said that Russia wanted to gain control of the Chernobyl power substation, which provides energy to Belarus and parts of western Russia.

Shane Partlow, who used to work at the US embassy in Kyiv, said this could be the purpose of holding the Chernobyl area, as the substation was “critical to electrical supply in the region, including Belarus and Russia”.

On 4 March, Russia also seized Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant - Europe’s largest - in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar after attacking it in the early hours the morning, setting an adjacent five-storey training facility on fire.

In an emotional speech in the middle of the night, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said he feared an explosion at Zaporizhzhia would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe”.

Regional military officials said there had been some damage to the compartment of reactor number one in the shelling, but that it did not affect the safety of the power unit.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said radiation levels in the area were not at dangerous levels, and most experts saw nothing to indicate an impending disaster.

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