Ukrainian authorities warned Friday that radiation levels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone had increased since it was taken by invading Russian forces, but the UN nuclear watchdog said it “posed no threat” at the moment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, and on the same day they seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in one of the most radioactive places on Earth.
Ukrainian authorities also said that they had informed the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they had lost control of highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods from the power plant.
“In the terrible hands of the aggressor, this significant amount of plutonium-239 could become an atomic bomb that will turn thousands of hectares into a dead, lifeless desert,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said.
“The humanitarian and environmental consequences of such a catastrophe know no bounds,” the ministry added, stressing that “they will have dire consequences for people.”
However, the IAEA said radiation levels remained low and posed no threat.
“The IAEA assesses that the measurements reported by the regulator are low and within the operational range measured in the exclusion zone since its inception, and therefore pose no threat to the public,” it said in a statement.
The IAEA added that Ukraine’s regulatory agency said the higher levels of radiation “may have been caused by heavy military vehicles raking up soil still contaminated by the 1986 accident.”
Earlier, the Ukrainian parliament had said data from the automated radiation monitoring system in the Chernobyl exclusion zone indicated higher than normal levels of radiation.
Gamma-ray levels “have been exceeded at a significant number of observation points,” the parliament said in a statement.
“Due to the occupation and hostilities, it is currently impossible to determine the reasons for the change in the radiation background in the exclusion zone,” the statement said.
Speaking to AFP, Alexander Grigorash, an official with Ukraine’s Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, said elevated radiation levels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone had been recorded at 03:20 local time (01:20 GMT).
Grigorash, deputy head of the authority’s security department, said he could not provide further details because site personnel had been evacuated after Russian forces took control of the plant.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said levels of radioactivity at the plant were “normal”.
The explosion at the nuclear power plant’s fourth reactor in April 1986 severely polluted parts of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus and created an exclusion zone about the size of Luxembourg.