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The Russian military gained access to unique materials, databases, and equipment after seizing Ukrainian nuclear facilities and scientific laboratories, Ukrainian nuclear industry workers have told The Insider. The troops took control of the Zaporizhzhya and Chernobyl nuclear power plants as well as their satellite towns: Energodar and Slavutich. In Chernobyl itself, there were reports of looting of the Ecocenter, a facility that handled radiation and environmental control in the exclusion zone. The equipment worth over 6 million euros had been supplied by the European Union and Japan as part of joint projects. It was this equipment that could be of the greatest interest to the Russian military.

ALL CARDS
  • Looting foreign companies' know-how

  • What happened at the EcoCenter?

  • «In the wake of the Russian army»

  • Restore the sensors' operation

On March 31, Russia withdrew its troops from the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which had been seized on the first day of the war. This was reported by Energoatom, the company that operates all the nuclear power plants in Ukraine. After 36 days of occupation, Russian troops moved towards Belarus. By Thursday evening, «there is not a single unauthorized person left on the site of the Chernobyl NPP».

The invaders took with them members of the Ukrainian National Guard who had been held captive since February 24. Before they left, the Chernobyl workers were forced to sign a document stating they had no claims against the Russian side, the so-called « Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Security Transfer Acceptance Certificate.»

The Russian military forced the Chernobyl employees to sign this document under pressure
The Russian military forced the Chernobyl employees to sign this document under pressure

Photo: Facebook/Ukrainian State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management

«Those «official» documents were signed by the plant employees under pressure to complete the process. The departure of the troops was accompanied by the looting of the premises, as well as the theft of equipment and other valuable items,» the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management reported.


Looting foreign companies' know-how


The independent nuclear energy expert Olga Kosharnaya, formerly a member of the Board of the Ukrainian State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation, told The Insider that unique equipment may have been the main interest of the Russian military.

On March 26, the Russian military took control of the town of Slavutich, about 50 kilometers from Chernobyl. Many plant employees live there. Several enterprises of interest to Russia are located in the town, the expert noted. Especially AtomRemontService, which is a subdivision of the operator of Ukraine's nuclear power plants. The entity is engaged in the organization of repairs at nuclear power plants. It uses technical devices to restore equipment, which do not exist in Russia or former socialist camp countries.

«The U.S. company Westinghouse Electric has a special rig to control the geometry when dismantling damaged fuel elements and fissile fuel cassettes made by this manufacturer,» Kosharnaya says. «Using the rig, it is possible to detect, remove and repair untight elements, after which the assembly can again be operated in the reactor core until the prescribed period expires.»

Every year, fuel assemblies (FAs) fail due to fuel elements becoming untight; in Russia, in such cases, they are unloaded from reactors ahead of schedule and disposed of. The use of special equipment makes it possible to extend their service life, which means considerable savings, as well as improved radiation safety.

It became known that during the retreat of the Russian military at least five containers with the technical devices used for repairing equipment were lost. In the town there are also unique training facilities for personnel, welding equipment, equipment for commissioning, turbines, pumps, ventilation mechanisms, heat-exchange equipment for valves. «We suspect that ultimately foreign companies' know-how, their intellectual property will be stolen,» Olga Kosharnaya pointed out.


What happened at the EcoCenter?


The Russian military also looted the EcoCenter in Chernobyl, a unique enterprise that conducted most radioecological research in Ukraine and accumulated a huge database. It was established in 1986 after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, when the work on the liquidation of the disaster began. Now the EcoCenter belongs to the State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management, which announced the seizure and looting of the enterprise on March 23.

View of the Eco-Center
View of the Eco-Center
Facebook/Denis Vishnevsky

EcoCenter's key facility is the Central Analytical Laboratory. The Insider's interlocutors agree that, judging by the picture, the Russian military held sway over the place. Servers and computer hard drives were ripped out. Olga Kosharnaya, an independent nuclear energy expert, believes the unique database containing radiology and dosimetry data collected since the Chernobyl accident is especially valuable for Russia. As of now the bulk of observations may have been destroyed.

The unique radiology and dosimetry database collected since the Chernobyl accident is of particular value to Russia: as of now it may have been destroyed

«Every year, the laboratory collected about 5,000 samples based on a rigid protocol - air, water, soil, aquatic life and more. The lab turned all of this into 12,000 test results showing the content of major radionuclides (cesium, strontium and transuranic elements) in the samples collected. The laboratory was the key element in this process. Radiochemistry and spectrometry are very expensive and complicated. Expensive equipment and consumables, expensive staff who must be trained for a long time for this work,» writes Denis Vishnevsky, head of the scientific department of the Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve.

Russian media also showed footage of the looted laboratory. They accused the Ukrainian side of «using staged footage to discredit the Russian military in the eyes of the public.» The report aired by the Russian state TV channel Zvezda showed one of the servicemen calling the presence of radioactive samples in the laboratory «a crime,» although the storage of samples is a normal matter in radioecological laboratories in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries. Mark Zheleznyak, a professor at the Institute of Radioecology of Fukushima University in Japan, told The Insider the samples came from research conducted as part of a Japanese-Ukrainian project he had been involved in.

«There are a lot of dirty places inside the area. According to the rules, the samples were stored in special cabinets on the EcoCenter premises. We collected a lot of samples. After examination, the sample continues to be stored for further study of other parameters. Each lab has facilities for storing samples; that's what a lab for. All kinds of IAEA commissions came there a hundred times to check it out, and everything was in perfect order,» Professor Zheleznyak said.

The EcoCenter laboratory before the Russian military invasion
The EcoCenter laboratory before the Russian military invasion
Facebook / Denis Vishnevsky

The radioactive isotopes used for instrument calibration have also disappeared from the laboratory of the Institute of Nuclear Power Plant Safety Problems. The lab is also located in Chernobyl. In addition, radioactive waste samples have also disappeared, including those left after the melting of the reactor core at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, head of the Institute Anatoly Nosovsky, said in an interview to the Science magazine. He fears those highly radioactive substances can be used for «dirty bomb» provocations. Mark Zheleznyak does not rule this out either. It would be easy to add the radioactive stuff from under the Block 4 sarcophagus to the explosives. Then they can be detonated anywhere.


«In the wake of the Russian army»


Speaking of the Russian military, experts note their unpreparedness for staying in the contaminated area. The whole area is a huge graveyard of radioactive waste. The Russians have set up a command post and military equipment, some of it old or unusable, right inside the contaminated areas in the vicinity of Chernobyl. According to the AFU, the 165th Artillery Brigade from the Amur region operated in Chernobyl. It was granted authorization to use substandard equipment. This increased the risk of detonation of the ammunition during loading and unloading.

According to Olga Kosharnaya, Russian soldiers were not even provided with individual dosimeters. Zones of radioactive contamination are unevenly distributed, i.e. a low dose rate in one spot may abruptly become dozens of times higher in another sport a few meters away. It is extremely dangerous to move in such conditions without a radiometer. In addition to getting a high dose of radiation, a soldier can also inhale alpha-active particles, which, judging by all appearances, is what in fact happened in the Red Forest adjacent to the Chernobyl NPP.

«They started digging trenches in the most contaminated place of the zone, the Red Forest, without dosimetry reconnaissance by their radiochemical defense troops. There was a fallout of long-lived isotopes: plutonium, uranium, americium, which emit alpha radiation. When alpha particles get into the body, the kidneys, lungs and other organs get damaged, it can lead to cancer very quickly,» the expert believes.

On March 30, Yaroslav Emelianenko, a member of the Public Council under the Ukrainian State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management, reported that several Russian servicemen were brought from Chernobyl to the Belarusian Radiation Medicine Center in Gomel. Reportedly, those soldiers had been exposed to radiation. The information was confirmed by the Ukrainian State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management, but the exact number of injured servicemen was not specified, nor was anything known about their medical condition. The Russian Defense Ministry did not comment on the report. The IAEA said it could not confirm the information and was awaiting additional data.

Why did the military ultimately leave Chernobyl? In addition to their interest in the equipment and data, the exclusion zone might have been of significance to Russian troops as a springboard for a quick offensive against Kyiv, some experts believe. The nuclear power plant is a perfect staging area for the deployment of combat equipment, because is highly unlikely the enemy would engage at a nuclear facility. So, it would be easy to get a foothold there, even though it is not safe in terms of radiation exposure - but the welfare of soldiers seems to be the last concern of the Russian military leadership. From this point of view, it's clear the decision to withdraw troops from Chernobyl was made because the military command gave up on the plan to take Kyiv. At the same time, the Russian military is not yet going to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia NPP site.


Restore the sensors' operation


After the withdrawal of Russian troops, first of all the Ukrainian specialists will have to repair the sensor systems, which were disabled by the invaders. In particular, the Automatic Radiation Situation Monitoring System (ASMRS). This is a system of dosimeters in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which show on the website in real time gamma radiation levels at different points within the zone.

Disabling the sensors created a dangerous situation. Fighting in the CEZ provoked forest fires in radiation-contaminated areas. More than 10 hectares of forest lands were burning, Ukrainian ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova reported. This could have caused elevated radiation levels, but without ASMRS there would have been no way to find out.

Professor Mark Zheleznyak told The Insider specialists had to rely on readings from instruments located 100 kilometers or further away from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The readings produced only an approximate picture.

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