Chernobyl worker recalls 600-hour shift at nuclear power plant under Russian occupation

April 26 (Reuters) – Nuclear engineer Liudmyla Kozak was halfway through a 12-hour night shift at the former Chernobyl plant when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and workers heard loud explosions at the edge of the so-called exclusion zone around the site.

As the military planes passed overhead and the sound of the fighting got closer, Kozak and his colleagues realized that the next team of workers would not arrive to relieve them as planned that morning.

By mid-afternoon, “we saw on our monitors that uninvited guests were breaking in,” Kozak, 45, told Reuters in Slavutych, a town near the Belarusian border where Chernobyl personnel live. .

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Workers were about to witness the most dramatic events at the plant since the 1986 nuclear disaster, the 36th anniversary of which was marked by a vigil in Slavutych on Tuesday.

After battling Ukrainian forces around the still-radioactive plant, Russian troops had taken control of its territory by the evening of the first day of the invasion – part of Moscow’s land, sea and air assault on the Ukraine which was the biggest attack on a European state. since World War II.

“They captured us and then let us go back to our work stations after long negotiations. They said we could work, no one would bother us,” Kozak said. “We carried out their orders, trying not to contradict them or conflict – not to provoke greater conflicts.”

Over the days, the Ukrainian authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly called for the release of the exhausted personnel who operate the radioactive waste management facilities.

Kozak said Russian troops were using a facility on the factory’s territory as a base for attacks closer to kyiv, which is 100 km (62 miles) from the factory.

“They went to Kyiv, shot, then came back to the factory and rested, took a shower, did laundry, ate a little and slept, then went back to Kyiv,” he said. she said, adding that the soldiers had stored a large amount of weapons and military equipment in Chernobyl.

Reuters could not independently verify his account. While the plant was occupied, Ukraine warned that Russian forces were bringing weapons and ammunition into the exclusion zone – the area around Chernobyl that is normally closed to anyone who does not work there or who does not have special clearance due to radiation hazards.

On April 26, 1986, a sudden power surge during a reactor systems test destroyed unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The accident and subsequent fire released huge amounts of radioactive material into the environment, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said. Britannica called it the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power generation.

Kozak did not see the withdrawal of Russian soldiers at the end of March. Read more Before that, after 25 days in the occupied factory, she and other workers were allowed to leave and other staff took their place. Read more

“My shift lasted 600 hours instead of 12,” she said with a weary smile.

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Written by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Mark Porter

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Michael A. Bynum