The head of the United Nations’ atomic watchdog says Russia’s temporary takeover of the Chernobyl site was “very, very dangerous” and raised radiation levels but those have now returned to normal.
“The situation was absolutely abnormal and very, very dangerous,” Rafael Grossi told reporters on Tuesday as he arrived at the sarcophagus that covers the nuclear reactor’s radioactive remains.
Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was visiting the site on the 36th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Russian troops captured the site on February 24, the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, taking Ukrainian soldiers prisoner and detaining civilian staff.
The occupation lasted until the end of March and raised global fears of nuclear leaks.
Grossi said radiation levels were now “normal”.
“There have been some moments when the levels have gone up because of the movement of the heavy equipment that Russian forces were bringing here and when they left,” he said.
Ukrainian officials say Russian soldiers may have been exposed to radiation after digging fortifications in “many places” at the site and stirring up clouds of dust with their armoured vehicles.
On April 26, 1986, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction destroyed the reactor in an accident that was initially covered up by the Soviet authorities. Many hundreds died but the exact figure remains disputed.
Eventually, 350,000 people were evacuated from a 30km (19-mile) radius around the plant, an exclusion zone that remains uninhabited, apart from some elderly residents who returned despite an official ban.
The Chernobyl power station’s three other reactors were successively closed, with the latest shutting off in 2000.
Russian forces continue to hold a working nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine called Zaporizhzhia, where there was fighting nearby in early March that damaged its training facility.
“Clearly, the physical integrity of one nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, was compromised. We also had situations where the external power was interrupted including here [Chernobyl] so there were a number of events that were compromising the normal operations of any nuclear power facility,” Grossi said.
With regards to the risks currently posed by the power plants in Ukraine, Grossi said the problem is “not nuclear energy. The problem is the war”.