Ukrainian officials are warning that Russian forces have entered Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, raising alarming questions about possible radiation issues descending upon Ukraine, Belarus, and other European countries should the fighting continue.
“Russian occupation forces are trying to seize” the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday. “Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated.”
The forces entering Chernobyl have come from Belarus. Their assault on the sensitive nuclear plant raises huge concerns of radiation dust, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, said in a post on Facebook.
The news comes after hours of Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of dawn Thursday, rolling explosions through Kyiv, Kharkiv, and many other cities. Zelensky declared martial law, urging citizens to stay home. President Joe Biden has said he will announce additional sanctions Thursday against Russia to mete out punishment for the assault on Ukraine that were once meant to prevent the invasion from happening altogether.
Zelensky said the development in Chernobyl is particularly alarming because it shows the nature of the conflict shows just how brazen and reckless Russia will be, as the ramifications of fighting in Chernobyl could quickly expand the conflict and its consequences through Europe.
“This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe,” Zelensky said.
Russia moved its forces into Belarus, to the north of Ukraine, in recent weeks under the guise of running military drills, but U.S. officials warned in a recent call with reporters the move could be used to cover up invasion plans.
The shortest route Russia could take to reach Kyiv in Ukraine is from the north, and that reality has now inevitably brought forces to the region surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where the 1986 nuclear accident occurred, releasing far more radioactive material than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Radioactive particles that are in the soil or under the containment structure there are slowly decaying and might not be a major threat—but that’s only if soldiers leave the area relatively quickly, according to The New York Times. And some zones emit radiation “thousands of times higher than normal,” the Times reported.
The International Atomic Energy Agency did not immediately return request for comment.
Authorities have attempted to isolate the cascading effects of the initial disaster by establishing and expanding the exclusion zone over the years, a zone meant to prevent people from being exposed to radioactive particles. The United States and dozens of other countries have contributed funding to the $1.7 billion stainless steel arch over the reactor in recent years.