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Chernobyl workers were ‘kidnapped’ for fear of reactor safety

Chernobyl has been cut off several times since Russia took over. (File)

Paris:

Hundreds of technicians are working under the armed guard to maintain the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, which was held hostage for three weeks by Russian forces that seized the compound during the first hours of the invasion.

Tired and malnourished, they were working night shifts when Russia unleashed the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history when it took over the site of the 1986 nuclear decommissioning.

Relatives and co-workers contacted the AFP saying the crews were unable to return to their homes in nearby Slavutych, a city built to house Chernobyl workers after the disaster.

“They are physically and morally tired,” said the wife of a technician, who, like others on the site, only communicates with the outside world by telephone.

“They think no one cares, neither the Russian government nor the Ukrainian government,” he said, adding that they receive only two small meals a day.

“They can shower, but without soap, without shampoo, they can’t brush their teeth. They can’t change or wash their clothes. There is no medicine. They sleep on the floor, sometimes. On tables or chairs.”

Another 100 people are being arrested at the site, including security personnel.

It is not clear why Russian troops took Chernobyl, where the destroyed reactor is being monitored inside a concrete and lead sarcophagus, and the other three reactors are being dismantled.

In 2017, the site was one of the targets of a Ukrainian cyber-attack that was believed to have originated in Russia, leaving the radiation control system offline.

On Sunday, dozens of people, including women and children, staged a protest over the treatment and safety risks of workers at the Slavutych plant.

Chernobyl has been cut off several times since Russia took over.

“Our boys are not only kidnapped, but prisoners in a concentration camp in Russia,” a woman who was protesting told local television.

‘Very worried’

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Tuesday that Chernobyl technicians and guards were “being forced to work under tremendous stress without the necessary rest.”

To ensure against radioactive hazards, “operating personnel must be able to comply with safety and security obligations and be able to make decisions without undue pressure,” he warned.

A Chernobyl engineer told AFP that the workers themselves “are very concerned that they will be in the front line in the event of an accident”.

He added that the pool that supplies depleted fuel is “40 percent overflowing” and that “replacement pools should be empty but also filled with other depleted fuels. This situation is contrary to international nuclear safety regulations.”

Contacted by the AFP, officials from the Ukrainian Atomic Energy Agency were unable to comment on the claims.

Russian forces also bombed and captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, on March 4, triggering a fire in Europe that triggered an alarm over a nuclear disaster.

Playing with fire

According to Karine Herviou, Deputy Director General of Nuclear Safety at the French IRSN, “there is no risk of an explosion on the ground.”

“Unlike the existing nuclear power plants, the constant loss of electricity supply to the site will not cause an accident,” he said.

But the danger of war remains, according to a technician’s relative, who says Russia has built a “military base” with batteries to launch Chernobyl missiles.

“It’s a great strategy for the war, but it’s completely insane for humanity – no one will fire missiles to destroy it against Chernobyl,” said Russian officials, a former employee of the site.

He said there was a good chance of a catastrophe, at least not because of the alleged security breaches by the Ukrainian authorities – which he saw in his head – and because the soldiers guarding the workers “do not know what is happening”.

“In nuclear security, you always try to predict the worst case scenario and try to avoid it. Right now, they’re trying to hide it, just like the USSR did in 1986,” the relatives said.

(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was automatically created from a union feed.)

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