Russia seizes Chernobyl, and Ukraine says radiation levels are on the rise

February 25, 2022, 3:13 PM UTC

Russian forces captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Thursday—and Ukraine officials say radiation levels at one of the world’s most toxic areas are on the rise.

Ukraine’s nuclear agency warned that readings of gamma radiation in the exclusion zone exceeded control levels on Friday, due to the large number of heavy military machines in the area disturbing the topsoil.

However, the condition of Chernobyl nuclear facilities and other facilities is unchanged, those experts said, implying the situation is not yet critical.

Chernobyl rose to infamy on April 26, 1986, when an explosion at the nuclear power plant led to what at the time was the worst nuclear disaster on record. Roughly 350,000 people were evacuated from the area. The death toll has never been pinpointed, with estimates ranging from as low as 4,000 indirect deaths (from the UN) to over 100,000.

The exclusion zone is where soil and other fallout is still at dangerous levels, covering 1,000 square miles in a forested area between the Belarus-Ukraine border and the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

The Russian military, while confirming it has captured the area, disputed the report of raised gamma levels.

“Yesterday, on Feb. 24, units of the Russian Airborne Forces took full control of the area around the Chernobyl [nuclear power plant],” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Interfax. “Radiation levels are normal in the [power plant’s] area. The [plant’s] personnel continue to operate the power plant as usual and to monitor radiation levels.”

Even if that’s true, there’s a question of how willing those workers are to be in the area right now.

Officials in Washington have expressed their anger at reports Russian troops are holding the staff of the plant hostage.

“We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday in a news briefing. “This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and greatly concerning. We condemn it, and we request their release.”

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