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    The true story of what happened at the Chernobyl power plant during the Russian occupation


    May 11, 2022 - CE Noticias Financieras

     

      At 8 a.m. on February 24, the day of the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an emergency alert sounded at the Chernobyl power plant. It had been issued by Valentin Geiko, who at the time was in charge of the shift at one of the world's most dangerous sites, the scene in 1986 of the worst nuclear disaster in history.

      There were reports of explosions all over Ukraine and sightings of Russian aircraft over Chernobyl, and Geiko telephoned the department heads on site to inform them of the situation.

      The night shift was due to end at 9 a.m., when a train would take the workers back to Slavutych, the town they lived in with their families. But news soon came that part of the track had been removed and the road bridge over the Dnieper River had been blown up. The shift rotation had been cancelled. There were 103 people on duty at the station. No one was going home.

      Anti-aircraft sirens sounded for the rest of the day. Most of the personnel were ordered to the bunker under the main building.

      Anton Kutenko, who worked in nuclear waste management, called his wife, who was caring for their two young children. "When are you coming home?" she asked him. "I don't know," he replied.

      At 4:15 p.m., on one of the 25 screens in front of him, security chief Valeriy Semenov, saw a heavy military vehicle approaching from the Belarusian border and, a little farther away, three armored personnel carriers and a convoy of trucks. On another screen, Semenov saw men in black uniforms disembarking at a checkpoint.

      Within three minutes, Russian troops were at the gates. They pulled up in front of the building in their vehicles, which included a tank. Seeing the camera footage, Semenov called Geiko to inform her that nine intruders were coming through the main turnstile. "Yes, I can see them through the window," Geiko said. "They are pointing their guns at me."

      It was the beginning of endless days of heavy tension, with staff caught between the threat of enemy soldiers and radioactive waste. The British magazine The Economist told the full story of what happened during those weeks in an extensive chronicle. A story that speaks of the courage and cunning of the Ukrainians who stood up to Vladimir Putin's invading troops.

      Negotiations

      The plant currently employs 2,600 people - cooks, engineers, doctors, security guards - and some 6,000 more work in the offices and laboratories, as well as in the shelters and stores that serve them. In the exclusion zone, created after the explosion of reactor 4 in 1986 and one of the most radiation-contaminated places on Earth, there are also two fire stations for emergencies at the power plant and to deal with summer forest fires.

      The week before the Ukrainian invasion, the number of soldiers deployed at Chernobyl doubled to more than 170.

      At the same time, negotiations for control of the plant began. Geiko, Semenov and two army commanders represented the Ukrainians; the Russian negotiators included a general and a colonel.

      Geiko explained to them that Chernobyl was a particularly dangerous facility because of the numerous radiation sources around the site. He insisted that he and his Ukrainian staff maintain operational control. The negotiations went on for nearly three hours. All the time, he told The Economist, Semenov could hear the mechanical grinding of a military convoy heading south toward Kiev.

      The Ukrainians knew that a firefight inside the plant could be catastrophic: equipment could be damaged and essential technicians injured. They also knew that they were far behind enemy lines. There was no chance that the Ukrainian army would liberate them.

      So they exaggerated the radiation threat to hinder Russian efforts to impose greater control. They warned them to stay away from certain "problem areas." At the same time, they did nothing to prevent the Russians from endangering themselves.

      Semenov proposed that Russian soldiers have access to the administration building and some other areas. In particular, he needed to keep them away from the power blocks, a series of buildings used to service the missing reactors. "It's the cockpit," he explained to the British magazine, "the area you want to keep the terrorists away from."

      Geiko and Semenov exhausted the Russians with descriptions of protocols, contingencies and dire warnings. They convinced them that plant security could not be guaranteed if weapons were allowed in the operational areas. "We achieved our negotiating objectives. They lived with us under our rules," Semenov said.

      They delivered 170 passes to the Russians, but only 15 of them were allowed access to the nuclear waste area.

      The first days of the occupation

      There were between 400 and 500 Russian soldiers stationed in and around the power plant site, a mix of regular troops, riot police and the Russian National Guard, which is normally deployed in the country. None of them displayed insignia or ranks on their uniforms.

      Valeriy Semenov, the head of security at the power plant, told The Economist that in the early days of the occupation, Russians tried to use their passes to open all kinds of doors and gates. "Look at the pictures on the walls if you want to see something. If you want some nuclear garbage, I can put some in your pocket," he told them.

      Semenov added that the soldiers stationed at the power plant behaved with restraint; instead, those in nearby laboratories and administrative buildings engaged in looting and vandalism.

      They stole excavators, forestry equipment, specialized nuclear waste transfer vehicles and every car they could find. They ransacked laboratories and offices, ripped out servers and took laptops, cameras and projection equipment. They took electric kettles and alarm clocks from hostel rooms and cutlery from dining halls. The invaders also dug trenches around the Red Forest, a highly contaminated area where much of the radioactive debris fell.

      Several officials from RosAtom, a Russian state nuclear power company, also arrived. Semenov said he got the feeling that their status was even higher than that of the generals. He saw them remove boxes from the site a couple of times. "I have no idea what they were doing," he said. "I think they were looking for those U.S. biological weapons labs" (a staple of Russian propaganda).

      Semenov, who has a degree in engineering and physics and spent his entire working life at the site, warned his staff not to risk a confrontation or take pictures with their phones. "I had to remain calm and steady. I didn't want to provoke them. It was very important to maintain their trust." He saw his main duty as "balancing the safety of the plant and the staff."

      He knew that the staff was angry with the occupiers.

      In general, the Ukrainians avoided the Russians, but from time to time they would ask them, "What are you doing here? What do you want here? Why don't you go home?" The soldiers used to mutter and leave. Sometimes they said they had come to liberate Ukraine from radicals or simply said they were carrying out orders.

      "There were difficult moments... People - Ukrainians - were ready for anything," Semenov said.

      Semenov said the soldiers had brought meager supplies: one admitted he had only packed a uniform, because he thought he was on a training exercise. Some asked him where they could buy cigarettes. "They said, 'Why are there no stores near here?' I told them, 'This is a restricted area!' They didn't understand where they were."

      Still, it was clear that the Russians were under orders not to harass plant personnel, said Anton Kutenko, the nuclear waste manager.

      Communication with the outside world was largely down to a landline telephone connection with the power plant's administration office in Slavutych. Semenov said he was trying to relay as much information as possible about the Russian maneuvers and overheard conversations.

      Russian tension and fake news

      Semenov became the key man in negotiating with the Russians. His expansive nature and good humor smoothed over uncomfortable situations. "Geiko was the head," he said, "and I was the hands."

      On more than one occasion, Russian soldiers tried to enter areas that their commanders had agreed they would not enter. "I had to predict any change of mood. I had to think one or two steps ahead," he told the British magazine.

      The head of security at the power station than defuse several clashes. One afternoon Russian soldiers began firing into the air, apparently trying to shoot down drones. On another occasion, the Russians arranged a meeting with the press and arrived with boxes of humanitarian aid to deliver them to the Ukrainians in front of television cameras. The Ukrainians refused to accept them.

      The staff slept in their offices. Semenov shared a camp bed and two sleeping bags with five colleagues.

      Every day, workers visited the medical clinic. Most of the complaints were stress-related: cramps, constipation, eczema, hemorrhoids.

      There was enough food at the plant for several weeks. From time to time the Ukrainians chatted with the Russian soldiers, who ate separately, during smoke breaks. Russian troops boasted that Kiev would be taken in three days. When the Russian advance stalled, they argued that they were fighting an army of U.S. soldiers, French foreign legionnaires and criminals whom Volodimir Zelensky, Ukraine's president, had supposedly released from prison.

      But reports of the failure of the Russian assault on Kiev filtered back to the Russians at headquarters. Some soldiers wanted to watch the TV news. They did not understand Ukrainian, but they could see the images of burning tanks and the bodies of Russian soldiers. Quietly, some said they did not know what they were doing there.

      Power outage

      On March 9, electricity, essential for controlling and cooling the nuclear debris, was cut off at the plant. If the electricity is cut off, the risk of a leak increases.

      No one knows why. Perhaps it was damaged in the fighting or caused by sabotage. There were backup generators, but the fuel lasted only 24 hours. The Ukrainians told the Russians there was only enough for 12. "If there is an accident," Semenov told an officer, "you are responsible."

      Electricians were sent to repair the line. The area outside the exclusion zone was difficult to manage and there were sporadic skirmishes. There were misunderstandings between the Russian soldiers and the Ukrainian electricians. Still, around lunchtime on the third day of the blackout, power was restored for two and a half hours. Just 15 minutes after Ukrainian television announced that the plant was back online, the power went out again.

      Staff had to prioritize supply: electric heaters and unnecessary equipment were turned off. Generators required almost constant replenishment: every three hours during the day, every five at night.

      All the tankers that kept Chernobyl running were redirected from the crippled Russian army near Kiev. Finally, Russian patience ran out. A general declared that Chernobyl was drawing too much gasoline from the front and told Geiko that they would have to connect to the Belarusian grid. Geiko had no choice: the danger of not doing so was too great. She insisted on one condition: if Chernobyl received electricity from Belarus, so must Slavutych, the town where the relatives lived and which was also without electricity.

      After two weeks, the Chernobyl troops were sent south to Kiev. They got drunk the night before they left. Some complained that they were being marched to "certain death". When a new garrison arrived, the remnants of a Marine battalion that had been fighting near Kyiv, the tires of their vehicles were so shredded that Semenov was surprised they could drive. At the plant, they collapsed stretched out on the grass, exhausted. A commander told Semenov not to let his staff antagonize them; they had lost too many comrades.

      On March 20, after 25 days of occupation, the Russians allowed most of the Ukrainian personnel at Chernobyl to rotate out (Semenov stayed, as his comrades were either besieged in Chernihiv, had young children, or had joined the Territorial Defense Forces).

      Attack and protests in Slavutych

      Meanwhile, the Russians were closing in on Slavutych. On March 22, Russian forces issued an ultimatum for the town to surrender by 3 p.m. the next day.

      On March 23, the Russians advanced timidly, firing several salvoes at the checkpoint farthest down the road from Slavutych. The next day "the real shooting started," said Yuri Fomichev, the mayor. Both checkpoints were destroyed, killing at least three people. Fomichev himself was detained by Russian soldiers.

      As Fomichev was being interrogated, a crowd of 5,000 had gathered, unfurling a giant Ukrainian flag and chanting, "No to the occupiers!" About 50 Russian soldiers stood in front of the armored cars and tanks, firing tear gas and bullets into the air to disperse the crowd.

      Eventually, Fomichev managed to get the crowd to retreat to the main square. His compliance seemed to calm Russian anger. After the troops searched the town for Ukrainian soldiers, they agreed to retreat to a nearby gas station, where they siphoned off fuel and looted the kiosk. They left the next day.

      When news of the fighting in Slavutych reached Chernobyl, Semenov and Geiko threatened to stop cooperating with the Russians if the attacks did not stop. A Russian general denied, with increasing emphasis, that any of his troops were near the city. Semenov's relationship with the general had once been cordial; now it was deteriorating. But he had no regrets. "It was our only way to try to help Slavutych," he said.

      Faced with Ukrainian counterattacks around Kiev, Russian troops began withdrawing toward the Belarusian border on March 31. They took the national guardsmen away as prisoners of war. The tires of their vehicles spread radioactive dust in the air as they retreated.

      When the last Russians left Chernobyl on April 2, the Ukrainians put their flag back on the main flagpole. Semenov found another flag, older and tattered, in a back room: he washed it, repaired it and hoisted it outside his building.

      A few days later, on April 26, the anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Semenov shared a photo of himself proudly holding a medal with a blue and yellow ribbon: the Order of Valor, awarded for his service during the occupation of the plant. The citation was signed by President Zelensky.

      The Chernobyl inferno: the screams of the victims burning inside, the fear and the thousands of dead.

      Fear and uncertainty: Chernobyl's molten guts are heating up and scientists do not know why.

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