Slavutitch (Ukraine) (AFP) – It started off as a normal shift in Chernobyl for Oleksiy Shelestiy, but as night turned to day on February 24, distant artillery fire and the arrival of Russian troops changed everything.
More than 100 workers, who had arrived at the former nuclear power plant for their night shift hours earlier, were now trapped as Russian forces entered Ukraine and seized large swaths of land en route to Kyiv .
The capture of Chernobyl by Russian forces sparked a week-long ordeal that saw power to the facility briefly cut and employees carefully watched by the invaders.
“We weren’t mentally prepared for this,” Shelestiy told AFP. “But we had no way out.”
As night supervisor, Shelestiy oversaw a team of nearly a dozen people tasked with monitoring the electricity supply at Chernobyl, where a massive sarcophagus covers the remains of a destroyed nuclear reactor to prevent radioactive contamination.
The plant was the site in 1986 of the worst nuclear accident in the world. Since then, it has been maintained by thousands of Ukrainian workers and closely monitored by international experts to contain its radioactive waste.
For years, a carefully executed shift schedule and monitoring network closely monitored radiation levels at the facility. Then Russian forces crossed the border from Belarus and seized Chernobyl, holding its workers captive and cutting it off from the world.
“I understood that an accident was possible,” recalls Shelestiy.
“The emotional and psychological pressure didn’t allow me to focus on that. We just tried to do our job and tried to control all the parameters so that nothing could happen.”
The most harrowing period of the occupation began on March 9, when power was cut off at the plant due to nearby fighting, Shelestiy said.
Experts have acknowledged that there would be no repeat of the 1986 meltdown without a functioning reactor on the ground. But electricity is nonetheless vital to power the security infrastructure, including the cooling systems of the spent nuclear fuel storage facility.
For days, workers relied first on their diesel supplies and then on Russian-supplied fuel until they were able to reroute electricity through the Belarusian grid.
All the while, Ukrainians trapped at the plant could only catch snippets of what was happening outside Chernobyl by listening to radio broadcasts and through occasional calls home on one of the factory landlines.
The staff couldn’t go home and became more and more exhausted. This risked compromising their ability to meet their safety and security obligations.
“It was mentally and emotionally difficult,” Shelestiy explained.
Employees were also closely watched and forced to navigate a dizzying array of checkpoints set up by the Russians on the factory grounds, hampering basic movement and maintenance of the facility.
Ukrainian authorities have since accused the Russians of showing complete disregard for base security during their occupation of Chernobyl, saying their soldiers dug trenches and set up camps in contaminated areas of the facility that received high doses of radiation.
“They dug bare soil contaminated with radiation, collected radioactive sand in bags for fortification, breathed in that dust,” Energy Minister German Galushchenko said in April, claiming Russian forces had been exposed to a “shocking” amount of radiation.
“Every Russian soldier will bring home a piece of Chernobyl. Dead or alive,” the minister added.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi later said “increased levels” of radiation had been recorded at Chernobyl, but insisted the matter was under control.
“The situation is not one that could be judged to pose a great danger to the environment and people at the time we were taking these measures,” he added.
Shelestiy was unable to confirm details of alleged Russian misconduct in Chernobyl, where he was mostly forced to stay at his job and had little interaction with their troops.
Amid the uncertainty, Shelestiy said he tried to console his team, whose families in the nearby town of Slavutych had been largely surrounded by Russian forces.
Back in Slavutych, Mayor Yuriy Fomichev walked a fine line, managing relations with Russian forces, helping smuggle supplies into the beleaguered community and comforting the families of captive workers.
“I had to calm them down and explain to them that you have to be patient,” Fomichev said.
Built in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident as a settlement for evacuated families who lived near the factory in 1986, Slavutych was one of the last purpose-built towns from scratch during the final days of the ‘Soviet Union.
For many of its residents, seeing chaos engulf Chernobyl again was an unwelcome case of deja vu.
“We were worried, nervous,” said Tamara Shyrobokova, 75, a former Chernobyl employee who was relocated to Slavutych after the collapse.
“I was literally shocked that Russia attacked Ukraine. No one could ever imagine that,” she added.
The entire episode also puzzles Shelestiy. He was released after a series of negotiations days before the Russians withdrew after their troops were routed in the battle for Kyiv.
“They said they were trying to free me from something but I don’t understand what,” Shelestiy said. “I can’t understand it.”
© 2022 AFP