Russian forces have vacated the area surrounding Chernobyl, but Ukrainian officials are now sounding the alarm that troops were likely exposed to high amounts of radiation after they intentionally disturbed radioactive dust, reports said Saturday.
Workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, have warned for weeks that Russian troops were kicking up clouds of radioactive dust after driving armored vehicles through an area known as the “red forest.”
Drone footage showed that trenches were also dug in “contaminated areas” throughout the exclusion zone, according to the BBC and New York Times.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said it has been unable to independently verify reporting that suggested Russian forces have received “high doses of radiation.”
“It is of paramount importance that the IAEA travels to Chernobyl so that we can take urgent action to assist Ukraine in ensuring nuclear safety and security there,” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said. “I’m in close consultations with our Ukrainian counterparts to organize such a visit as soon as it is possible.”
As of Friday the nuclear watchdog still had not been able to access the site, but said it was the agency’s “priority was to send safety, security and safeguards staff to the Chornobyl NPP as soon as it is possible.”
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was besieged by Russian forces on the first day of Moscow’s invasion on Feb. 24.
Though Ukrainian officials were allowed to continue to oversee the site, they had to contend with ill-informed Russian soldiers.
“We had to constantly negotiate with them, and try hard not to offend them, so that they allowed our personnel to manage the facility,” engineer Valeriy Semonov told BBC Saturday.
Engineers explained that they were forced to go to drastic measures to ensure the plant kept functioning properly, even after it lost access to electricity for three days.
Semonov said they were forced to scramble and find fuel to keep the generators running – reportedly stealing some from Russian forces.
Russian forces have withdrawn from the north of Ukraine back into Belarus and Russia. But US and NATO officials have repeatedly warned this is merely a tactic to re-arm and re-supply themselves before they concentrate their efforts in eastern Ukraine.