The Ukrainian state nuclear company said on Thursday most of the Russian forces that occupied the Chornobyl nuclear power station after invading Ukraine have left the defunct plant, and suggested radiation concerns had driven them away.
Though Russian troops seized control of Chornobyl soon after the Feb. 24 invasion, the plant’s Ukrainian staff continued to oversee the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and supervise the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident.
State-owned Energoatom said these workers had flagged earlier on Thursday that Russian forces were planning to leave the territory.
“The information is confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the exclusion zone, have set off in two columns towards the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus,” it said in a statement.
It said a small number of Russian troops remained at Chornobyl, but did not specify how many. Russian forces have also retreated from the nearby town of Slavutych, where workers at Chornobyl live, it said.
In a separate online post, Energoatom said the Russian side had formally agreed to hand back to Ukraine the responsibility for protecting Chornobyl. It shared the scan of a document setting out such an arrangement and signed by individuals it identified as a senior staff member at Chornobyl, the Russian military official tasked with guarding Chornobyl, and others.
Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the document. There was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities, who have denied that its forces have put nuclear facilities in Ukraine at risk.
'ALMOST A RIOT'
Energoatom said it had also confirmed information that Russian troops had built fortifications including trenches in the so-called Red Forest – the most radioactively contaminated part of the zone around Chornobyl.
As a result of concerns about radiation, “almost a riot began to brew among the soldiers,” it said in the statement, suggesting this was the reason for their unexpected departure.
Ukraine has repeatedly expressed safety concerns about Chornobyl and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops, whose presence prevented the rotation of the plant’s personnel for a time.
Earlier this week, workers at the site told Reuters that Russian soldiers had driven without radiation protection through the Red Forest, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust.
Asked to comment on the accounts from Chornobyl staff, Russia’s defence ministry did not respond.
Earlier on Thursday, the head of Energoatom urged the UN nuclear watchdog to help ensure Russian nuclear officials do not interfere in the operation of Chornobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is also occupied by Russian soldiers.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Timothy Heritage and Jonathan Oatis)