Chernobyl staff battling to avert nuclear disaster, warns mayor

Published by The Daily Mail (16th March, 2022)

The mayor of a town housing workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant has issued a desperate plea after scores of staff have been held ‘hostage’ at the site by Russian soldiers.

Yuri Fomichev, mayor of Slavutych, contacted the Daily Mail to warn of ‘complete catastrophe’ as they run out of food and fuel – including for the emergency generators that supply back-up control for the plant’s safety systems – after being besieged for almost three weeks.

He said the town faces ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ while the mental stresses on staff held at gunpoint to maintain operations risked ‘a new accident’.

His fears were backed by the official in charge of a 19-mile Exclusion Zone round Chernobyl, who warned that staff were ‘on the edge of their human capabilities due to physical and emotional exhaustion’ as they worked around the clock to protect public safety.

Mr Fomichev issued his call in a series of text messages. His town of Slavutych, which was purpose-built for staff after the 1986 disaster left widespread contamination, is home to about 20,000 people.

On the first day of the invasion, it was overrun by Russian military forces crossing the nearby Belarus border. They blew up a key access bridge, leaving the town behind the frontline.

Mr Fomichev said dwindling electricity supplies have forced families to cook over open fires in their yards as they use up fast-disappearing reserve supplies of fuel for heating.

Ukraine’s national energy company, Ukrenergo, restored power to the area for the third time on Monday night after Russian forces damaged a high-voltage power line. This had left the town without electricity for the previous five days.

The decommissioned power plant, located about 60 miles north of Kyiv, has 20 tons of nuclear waste that must be constantly cooled to stop radiation leaking through vaporisation.

The mayor said that if power is lost, ‘all safety systems are supported on generators, which are also running out of fuel’.

Chillingly, he added: ‘If the cooling systems stop, even for a while, we will get yet another Fukushima’ – a reference to the 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster.

The mayor is pleading for a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to switch and supply staff at the plant. He warned that the workers were ‘very tired – physically, morally and psychologically. They lose concentration and it is very dangerous for the nuclear power plant’.

Yevhen Kramarenko, head of the Ukrainian agency managing the Exclusion Zone, said the 103 staff stranded at Chernobyl should be replaced every 24 hours. Another 160 workers are trapped in Slavutych but unable to rotate with colleagues at the plant.

Staff have had to create sleeping facilities inside the nuclear plant, using a few camp beds, tables and the floor, while dividing into shifts to ensure they get some rest.

The agency also lost connection on the second day of the war with critical sensors placed across the Exclusion Zone. ‘The last data we received showed an increase of 20 times the amount in radiation levels,’ said Mr Kramarenko.

He added that the rise could be due to radioactive dust spread by the unusual movement of people and vehicles in the contaminated environment but said the reason ‘could be some problems that we are not able to detect and address’.

The safety chief added that satellite images showed several fires raging in the zone, which could be very dangerous if they spread to the spent fuel storage facilities. ‘We desperately call for urgent measures to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities.’

Slavutych’s mayor said residents who had assisted in the clean-up after the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power generation were finding the current war ‘ten times worse and harder than the accident’.

Anna, 30, said fellow residents were resorting to bartering – even for medicines – after being cut off from the rest of Ukraine since February 24. ‘There’s no food in the stores – we’ve nearly run out of everything.’

She said some friends had queued to buy bread for seven hours. ‘I haven’t had bread since the beginning of the war.’

Anna added that 15 babies had been born in the town during this period, while efforts by farmers to supply milk were ending due to petrol shortages. ‘I can’t imagine what it might feel like to have a newborn these days not knowing if you can get food.’

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s energy minister Herman Galushchenko has said: ‘A nuclear war can start even without launching nuclear missiles. If this happens, the whole of Europe will be forced to hide in shelters, trying to escape the radiation.’

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