Invading Russian troops took over Chornobyl, the site of the deadliest nuclear disaster in human history, five weeks ago. Within a few weeks, the plant’s electricity had gone out, exposing hundreds of Ukrainian workers trapped within to radioactive dust, and the surrounding forests of radioactive plants and fungi had caught fire. It’s understandable that many were concerned.
Then, according to a report in Science, which was confirmed by a source for the New Scientist, Russian troops in the area looted a radiation monitoring lab in Chornobyl village, apparently taking artifacts that could be used to make a dirty bomb – a weapon made by combining conventional explosives with radioactive materials. Anatolii Nosovskyi, director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv, told Science that the Chornobyl complex holds far more toxic chemicals whose “fate… is unknown to us.”
Samples from the Unit Four meltdown 35 years ago, which are still highly radioactive, are among these materials, as are “powerful sources of gamma and neutron radiation” used in device testing, according to Nosovskyi. As frightening as this may sound, experts say there’s no need to be concerned – at least not any more than we previously were. The use of radioactive sources that are readily available in labs and offices would be beneficial. Professor Bruno Merk, Research Chair in Computational Modelling for Nuclear Engineering at the University of Liverpool, told New Scientist, “Mainly… calibration sources, stuff you use to calibrate detection equipment.”
“You may grab these radioactive sources from any hospital.” It would always have been possible for someone to sneak in and steal something. “I don’t believe the risk is any greater than it was before the Russian invasion,” he said. “If they have plutonium in their offices, they’ve broken a lot of [global] pollution regulations.” The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] has clear rules for this, and that does not appear to be the case.”
While Russia has denied that its soldiers have put nuclear facilities in Ukraine in jeopardy, Ukrainian officials have condemned the troops’ “irresponsible” actions around Chornobyl. According to Reuters, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk posted on her Telegram account Sunday, “In the context of nuclear safety, the irresponsible and unprofessional actions of Russian servicemen present a very serious threat not only to Ukraine but to hundreds of millions of Europeans.”
She claimed that transporting old and poorly maintained Russian weapons around the plant risked damaging the containment vessel protecting the destroyed Unit Four reactor, which would “inevitably lead to the release in the atmosphere of a significant amount of radioactive dust and contamination not only in Ukraine but also in other European countries,” she said.
Meanwhile, inside the besieged power plant, reports indicate that a humanitarian crisis is emerging, with personnel having to perform 24-hour shifts with limited access to basic essentials like food and medicine. Efforts to safeguard Ukraine’s thousands of other nuclear facilities are still underway, despite the fact that “there are a lot of radioactive sources that aren’t on anyone’s radar… Even Ukraine’s radar,” Vitaly Fedchenko of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a nuclear security expert, told Science.
Nonetheless, according to Merk, the threat posed by a dirty bomb made from Chornobyl artifacts is low: “There are a lot of radioactive sources all throughout the world,” Merk remarked. “There’s a simpler way if someone wants to get their hands on this.”