Systems monitoring nuclear material at the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl in Ukraine have stopped transmitting data to the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Russian forces surrounded and seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant last month on the first day of their invasion of Ukraine, and have since refused to let some 210 staff members leave the site.
‘The Director General indicated that remote data transmission from safeguards monitoring systems installed at the Chernobyl NPP had been lost,’ the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement today.
Safeguards refers to the field of IAEA work aimed at keeping track of nuclear material and waste products generated by nuclear power plants.
The IAEA urged Russian authorities to allow the 210 staff members who are being held captive at Chernobyl to leave, arguing that although radiation levels in the area are relatively low, it is necessary to ensure a ‘safe rotation’ of staff.
It comes after the Vienna-based UN body said Ukrainian authorities reported an attack on a nuclear facility in Kharkiv on Sunday – though no increase in radiation levels had been reported at the site.
The facility is part of the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, a research institute that produces radioactive material for medical and industrial applications.
Kharkiv has come under intense Russian shelling and missile attacks in recent days, as Moscow tries to step up pressure on Ukraine to surrender.
The nuclear institute itself has been at the centre of online conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims in Russian media that Ukraine is attempting to develop a ‘dirty bomb’ – a crude nuclear weapon capable of causing mass casualties.
Because the site’s ‘inventory of radioactive material is very low’ and kept at a ‘subcritical’ state, the IAEA said ‘the damage reported to it would not have had any radiological consequence.’
The IAEA said this was just the latest instance of a nuclear facility becoming caught up in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
‘We have already had several episodes compromising safety at Ukraine’s nuclear sites,’ said IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi.
There have been reports of damage to radioactive waste disposal facilities near Kyiv and Kharkiv and Russian forces have hit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, causing a fire that had to be contained.
The IAEA said the Zaporizhzhia – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – was now under the control of Russian forces, blocking the delivery of spare parts and medicine.
Only two of the facility’s six reactors are operating.
Grossi meanwhile has offered to travel to travel to Chernobyl to try and negotiate the safe release of the 210 staff who have been on-site for almost a fortnight and have not been allowed to leave by their Russian captors.