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Chernobyl nuclear power plant ruins: The fear of a new catastrophe

Ukraine had big plans for Chernobyl: the nuclear ruins were to become a world heritage site, tourist magnet and memorial. After the attack by Russian troops, who temporarily occupied the exclusion zone, the fear of a meltdown is back.

It was an expression that Olena Parenyuk first had to look up: “Gravely concerned”: Seriously concerned, she had never heard the expression before. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could not have summarized the situation in Chernobyl in early March more appropriately, says the Ukrainian scientist, who studies the consequences of nuclear accidents. Because suddenly the accident reactor was in the middle of a contested area. And there was every reason to be “seriously concerned.”

Chernobyl is far more than just the fourth reactor block that exploded 36 years ago – and which, decades later, is no longer secured by a hastily pulled concrete sarcophagus, but by a modern protective cover. There are the other three decommissioned reactor units that still need maintenance.

“There are also special containers for used nuclear fuel rods there. Fuel elements from the three decommissioned units are also stored there,” explains the scientist, who herself worked in Chernobyl for ten years. Few can imagine what would happen if a missile hit a nuclear waste site like this one.

Temporarily increased radiation measured

That the danger of an incident is real was shown in early March when the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – was shelled. The images from the surveillance cameras documenting the shelling went around the world. A fire broke out in a training building.

The IAEA announced that increased radiation levels had not been measured. Unlike at least temporarily in Chernobyl, as IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi explained earlier this month:

“Overall, the radioactive contamination is within normal limits. However, higher levels of radioactivity were detected at the time the site was occupied due to heavy equipment being moved. We have heard that there may have been radiation injuries to individuals is, but we have no confirmation of that.”

Armored vehicles and other heavy equipment are believed to have kicked up radioactive dust in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Zaporizhia NPP controlled by Russia

The fact that shift work in the decommissioned nuclear power plant has meanwhile come to a standstill also raised anxious questions among many in the region: What if someone makes a mistake out of tiredness or under the enormous psychological pressure? If there is a chain reaction – like in 1986, when reactor block 4 exploded and a huge radioactive cloud was released, the consequences of which can still be measured today.

Interruptions in the vital power supply to facilities in Ukraine are also a constant concern. That was true for Chernobyl, but also for Zaporizhia: “Two out of six reactor units are currently in operation in Zaporizhia. They are running at lower capacity because some power supply lines were damaged,” says Ukrainian scientist Parenyuk. The nuclear power plant itself is currently under the control of Russia.

In view of the situation, the International Atomic Energy Agency is finding it difficult to provide ratings for the four active Ukrainian nuclear power plants with a total of 15 reactor blocks. There is a lack of independent information. At least it has now been possible to resume direct communication between the IAEA and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The delivery of essential equipment has already been promised.

Today, General Manager Grossi wants to get an idea of ​​the situation here. He is likely to be confronted with political demands once again: Ukraine is pushing for demilitarization and the release of Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

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