Chernobyl: Survivors reflect on nuclear accident, Russian occupation
Survivors of one of the world’s worst ever nuclear accidents at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine on 26 April 1986 have been reflecting on the events of that fateful day 37 years ago, as current employees consider the challenges of working at the plant which was seized by Russian troops following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Looking back on two of the most difficult periods since the plant opened in 1977, Chernobyl employees shared their personal stories with UN News on the International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day.
Evgeny Yashin was a 40-year-old chemist at the Chernobyl plant when the nuclear power reactor accident unfolded in April 1986, resulting in massive evacuations, the deaths of 31 people, and long-term illness for thousands of others.
“Everyone was talking about the explosion of the reactor’s emergency cooling system,” he told UN News, recalling a fateful bus ride to work on the day of the accident. “But, passing by the fourth power unit, it became clear to us that it was much more serious than expected; the wall of the reactor had completely fallen out and a glow could be seen, resembling a steel foundry oven. We took action immediately.”
At that point, the scale of the accident was neither expected nor assessed, he said, adding that protocols were not in place because it had been inconceivable that this could happen to the reactors. As a shift supervisor of 300 employees at Chernobyl’s chemical workshop, his team’s main task was to prepare demineralized water, receive radioactive liquid waste, store it, and process it.
“We prepared the water to extinguish the reactor, walked knee-deep in water, and organized pumping,” he said. “Water appeared to be flowing endlessly, the system was launched at full capacity, and more and more water was required.”
On 27 April, Pripyat inhabitants were evacuated along with some of the plant’s staff, he said, remembering buses driving across the city, stopping in front of houses to collect evacuees. Relatives could neither call, warn them nor discuss the evacuation route, he said, recalling that he found his family had moved out of the area.
‘Very few of my colleagues are still alive’
In early May, the remaining staff were experiencing serious side-effects, as doctors monitored their health via frequent blood tests, he said, adding that some were taken “out of the zone” to rest.
“I feel the consequences on my health even now,” said Mr. Yashin, who has cancer. “Very few of my colleagues are still alive. I am surprised that I myself am still alive.”
Meanwhile, disputes remain about who is to blame, he said.
“I am 100 per cent sure that the designers could not have foreseen such a development,” he said. “The station personnel took all measures to localize the accident’s consequences, but could not prevent it.”
Since then, each year, on 26 April, residents of the city of Slavutych gather at a monument to the Chernobyl victims, lighting candles and remembering those tragic events, Mr. Yashin said. While he no longer works at the plant, his granddaughter, Tatiana, is an engineer who handles spent nuclear fuel at the facility, where it is stored alongside thousands of tons of radioactive waste.
Like all nuclear power facilities, Chernobyl enjoys special protection under international humanitarian law. But, the 2022 Russian occupation raised grave safety concerns. It also brought employees back to 1986 working conditions, requiring compulsory rotational shifts.
“We are now working as in 1986,” Alexander Novikov, the plant’s deputy chief engineer for technical safety, said. “I have just arrived on duty and will be here until next Monday. We converted our offices into rest stations, installing showers and washing machines. Radiation control has been significantly strengthened; we carry it out every day because people live close to the station.”
One year after the Russian occupation, employees can no longer take a simple bus ride. Most live in Slavutych, but railway lines were bombed on the first day the Russia’s invasion, on 24 February 2022. Workers now travel by bus from 350 kilometres away, work for a whole week, staying in the exclusion zone for the entire period, and then return home, he said.
Until 2022, nuclear facilities had never been captured in the context of conflict, Mr. Novikov said. The unique situation has called for tailored measures.
“The IAEA made an unconventional decision to organize ‘permanent missions’,” he said, adding that power plant employees and IAEA inspectors alike are constantly present at the facility. “Inspectors used to come and conduct an inspection for several days or weeks and then leave. Now, IAEA representatives live with our staff, carrying out inspection activities without leaving the plant.”
When a country loses control over such facilities and is unable to conduct inspections, it must turn to the international community for support, he said.
‘The time has come’
“The time has come to respond to crises,” said IAEA chief Rafael Grossi.
While the agency’s main task, since its inception at the height of the cold war in 1957, is to ensure safety at nuclear facilities, it has never encountered the need to operate in the epicenter of intense armed fighting.
Following the onset of the war in Ukraine, the agency invited stakeholders to discussions at its headquarters in Vienna. Representing the Chernobyl plant as part of a Ukrainian delegation, Mr. Novikov said not one of the many reports he had read had mentioned the Russian war against Ukraine.
Demilitarize nuclear facilities
“The question arose of how to ensure security in such situations that are happening now in our country,” he recalled, pointing out that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is also operating in the middle of a warzone. “After all, any incident can lead to consequences that will be felt throughout Europe.”
Indeed, Zaporizhzhia is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
“You can’t capture nuclear facilities,” he stressed. “The area around nuclear power plants must be demilitarized.”
Protect cleanest energy source
Despite the challenges of accidents and war, nuclear energy represents the future, as electricity consumption in the world is growing, he said. For example, 80 per cent of electricity in France comes from nuclear power sources.
“No matter how paradoxical these words sounded after Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power plants are one of the safest electricity producers,” he said. “Under normal operations, absent accidents and incidents, it is also the cleanest source.”
New types of reactors are reliable and controllable, he explained, adding that the development of nuclear energy is “the most promising way” forward.
“All we need now is a new approach to security,” he said.