There is no visible presence of the source of the radioactive material in the room, but Ukrainian officials say it came from small particles and dust that soldiers brought into the building.
“They went to the Red Forest and brought radioactive material with them on their shoes,” says soldier Ihor Ugolkov. “Other places are fine, but the radiation went up here, because they lived here.”
CNN has gained exclusive access to the power plant for the first time since it returned to Ukrainian control.
Plant officials say levels inside the room used by Russian soldiers are only slightly above what the World Nuclear Association describes as background radiation. A one-time contact would not be dangerous, but continued exposure would pose a health risk.
“They went everywhere, and they also took radioactive dust on them [when they left]“, adds Ugolkov.
Ukrainian officials have released drone footage of what they say are trenches dug by Russian soldiers in this area, which is particularly radioactive. In a safe place on the edges of this area, CNN saw a Russian military ration box that showed radiation levels 50 times higher than natural values.
“It’s crazy, really,” Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko told CNN at the plant. “I really have no idea why they did this (going to the Red Forest).
“But we can see that they went there, the soldiers who went there came back here and the radiation level went up.”
Although Chernobyl is not an active power plant, the sarcophagus above the reactor that exploded nearly 36 years ago needs to be maintained to prevent further radioactive leaks. There is also a considerable amount of used nuclear fuel to deal with.
“This containment is supposed to have electricity, it’s supposed to have the ventilation system and so on,” Galushchenko explains. “When the country cannot control this, and we are responsible, Ukraine is responsible for security, of course it is a threat.”
[Our staff] were there from day one of the occupation, and they only had the option of being replaced a month later,” he says. soldiers, it’s really a very difficult job.”
He says the staff were working under enormous pressure, not only because of what was happening at Chernobyl, but also because of the news they were getting from the outside world.
“Our relatives started calling and saying that the city was taken by storm, that there were injuries and deaths,” he says. “We asked the Russians what was going on and they said there were no regular Russian troops there, but we kept hearing there was shelling.”
Falshovnyk also accused Russian soldiers of looting the power station.
“They gave us personnel from Rosatom (Russian Nuclear Agency) to escort us, and in their escort we visited the uncovered warehouses. They robbed these warehouses all the time,” he adds.
Operating in these conditions was intense, but nothing compared to what the security personnel endured.
The 169 Ukrainian National Guard soldiers guarding the facility were locked in the factory’s Cold War-era underground nuclear bunker, crammed into cramped quarters with no access to natural light, air fresh air or communication with the outside world, according to the Ukrainian Interior Minister. .
“They were kept here for 30 days without sufficient light or food. They weren’t allowed out. On the last day they were taken from here in an unknown direction,” said Denys Monastyrskyy standing inside. from the bunker.
The minister says he believes the men were taken to Russia, via Belarus, as prisoners of war, but is not sure.
“Today, unfortunately, we don’t know anything about their fate,” he said.
CNN was shown inside the bunker and other places usually occupied by factory personnel by Ukrainian officials who claimed Russian soldiers ransacked the place. Clothes, hygiene products and other personal effects were strewn on the floor.
“The Russian army searched all Ukrainian clothes, personal belongings, like dogs, looking for, probably, money, valuables, laptops,” Monastyrskyy continues. “There was looting here. The Russian army stole computers and equipment.”
Moscow said very little about what its soldiers did at Chernobyl. The last time the Russian Defense Ministry mentioned the nuclear site was on February 26, confirming its capture and saying it had made arrangements to secure the generators, the sarcophagus and a facility. storage of spent nuclear fuel.
Chernobyl is not an isolated case
Ukrainian officials say the behavior of the Russian military and the treatment of Ukrainian personnel at the Chernobyl plant highlight the danger posed by invading Moscow as it takes over factories in other regions .
“The situation there is also horrible, especially considering how they captured Zaporizhzhia because they fired on the plant, with heavy weapons,” Energy Minister Galushchenko said.
“This is truly an act of nuclear terrorism,” he adds. “I’m not even saying that they are bombing the power plants as well as a situation in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but when we don’t have the opportunity to be responsible for nuclear security, there is a threat.”
And although Ukraine has regained control of Chernobyl, Ukrainian officials fear Russian soldiers may try to return.
“We understand that today we must be ready at any time for another attack on a nuclear power plant. We will use the best experience in the world to ensure the protection of the plant because the border is only a few tens of miles away. kilometers”, declared the Minister of the Interior. said Monastyrsky.
“What we see [in Chernobyl] is a vivid example of outrage at a nuclear facility. It is the responsibility not only of Ukraine, but of the whole world, to ensure the safety of the plants,” he said. “The whole world watched live as tanks fired at nuclear power plants. [in Zaporizhzhia]. This story must never repeat itself.”
Monastyrskyy says that to do this his country needs continued international support.
“We are ready to invest in the future of Ukraine and in the future security of the world,” he continued, reiterating his government’s call for more arms to be sent to Ukraine.
“Today the border between totalitarianism and democracy passes behind our backs, the border between freedom and oppression”, he says. “We are ready to fight for it.