Russian troops pushing through the exclusion zone around the former Chernobyl nuclear plant north of Kyiv captured the plant itself, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office.
The power plant, scene of the worst nuclear accident in history, could hardly be considered a valuable asset. In the years following the 1986 explosion and fire that destroyed the plant’s Unit 4 reactor, the remaining three reactors were all shut down. The plant hasn’t produced electricity in more than two decades, and much of the equipment has been removed.
What remains, however, is a lot of nuclear waste, and the plant’s capture is raising concerns about nuclear safety. More than 20,000 highly radioactive fuel assemblies that were removed from the undamaged reactors were slowly being transferred from a facility where they have been stored under water to a long-term dry-storage site that opened in late 2020. There are several other storage facilities at the site as well, for less dangerous and shorter-lived waste.
The danger with fighting around any of these facilities is that if they are damaged by a shell or other explosive, radioactive material could escape.
But the biggest concern would be fighting that affected the lethal remains of Unit 4 itself. Radioactive particles from an estimated five tons of the reactor’s fuel were carried into the air during the 1986 explosion and fire, spreading contamination around Europe. But about 200 tons of fuel remain at the bottom of the destroyed reactor, and it is relatively unprotected.
Following the accident, a concrete shelter, known as the sarcophagus, was hastily built to contain the radiation from that fuel. But over time the sarcophagus deteriorated, becoming unstable, and the aging fuel began to crumble.
Fearing that the sarcophagus might collapse and spew radioactive dust into the air — potentially repeating the widespread contamination of 1986 — more than two dozen nations financed the construction of an arch-shaped steel building that was moved into place over the sarcophagus in 2016. A license to begin dismantling the sarcophagus and safely disposing of the fuel and other radioactive material was granted by Ukrainian authorities last year. The process is expected to take decades.
Since the arch was only built for peacetime, any fighting that breached it or, worse, caused the sarcophagus within to collapse, could potentially lead to the kind of disaster the arch was built to prevent.