RADIATION RISKSWhat Are the Risks at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant?

By Ajit Niranjan

Published 9 March 2022

Threat of a nuclear catastrophe is low. But experts fear for safety of workers who have been unable to rotate off shift. Communications with the site are down and electricity has reportedly been lost.

In late February Russian troops invading Ukraine occupied the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, and took over an exclusion zone that houses decommissioned reactors and radioactive waste facilities.

Since then, the 210 technicians and guards responsible for keeping it safe have not taken a proper break.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations body responsible for nuclear security, says a key pillar of nuclear safety is giving operating staff the capacity to make decisions free of “undue pressure.” But overworked staff at Chernobyl are trying to fulfil their duties amid an invasion that has already forced 2 million people to flee.

A combination of factors has increased fears of radioactive leaks from the Chernobyl site. But there is no chance of a nuclear meltdown — the last reactor was closed more than two decades ago. For now, the main concerns are for staff.

I’m deeply concerned about the difficult and stressful situation facing staff at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the potential risks this entails for nuclear safety,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi in a press statement Tuesday. “I call on the forces in effective control of the site to urgently facilitate the safe rotation of personnel there.”

Communications and Power Failures
Compounding the concerns are problems with communications and electricity.

On Tuesday, the IAEA said data transmission from monitoring systems installed at Chernobyl had been lost and Ukraine’s regulatory authority could only communicate with the plant via email. State-run nuclear energy company Ukrenergo reported Wednesday that a high-voltage electricity line connecting Kyiv and Chernobyl had been disconnected. That has forced workers to rely on diesel generators for electricity and there are concerns it could disrupt the cooling pumps for spent fuel.

Radioactive fuel rods continue to heat up after they have been taken out of reactors and need to be chilled in water for years before they can be moved to dry storage facilities. More than 20,000 spent fuel rods are sitting in wet and dry storage facilities at the site.

If the cooling pools were to dry out, the radiation could hurt workers. But experts said a large release of radiation akin to the 1986 disaster is unlikely and would not “have consequences outside the plant site.”