Analysis. The area is mostly safe from radiation, and the Russians may use it as a strategic route to invade Ukraine. But there is little fear Russia would provoke a second nuclear incident at the site.

Is Chernobyl now the safest place in Ukraine?

The Ukrainian government is watching with concern the massing of Russian troops on the Belarusian border, particularly in the small towns of Rečika and Zyabrovkae. On February 4, in the presence of Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, the international press was invited to observe Kiev troops engaged in a series of exercises in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It is precisely through here that, according to the Ukrainian command, the Russian army will try to pass in case of an invasion. The alternative would be to pass through Černihiv, but the modern four-lane highway that connects directly to the Belarusian border is controlled by Ukrainian armored vehicles, and resistance could slow the advance of Moscow’s troops.

Here in Chernobyl, however, the Russians could play in familiar terrain: since 1986, the year of the nuclear accident at the Vladimir Lenin power plant, nothing has changed. The buildings, the roads, the shells of the vehicles used to extinguish the fire that broke out from reactor number 4, the bunkers, the bridges, the barracks, the basements, even the cemeteries located in the 2,600 square kilometers of the Exclusion Zone have remained exactly as they were in 1991, when, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow withdrew its troops and its technicians, leaving to Ukraine the task of controlling a plant that had become an unbearable burden. The Russian command has the most accurate topographical maps of the area compared to anybody else in Ukraine.

Not even the radiation is a big obstacle: Statements from the Ukrainians that any Russian soldiers who enter the contaminated area would die of radiation poisoning are merely for propaganda effect, for the use and consumption of the press.

In reality, the level of radioisotopes present today in most of the soil is generally quite low: in the center of Prypiat, the average of the measurements for the entire 2021 has detected values of around 8 mSV/year, similar to those in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The tourists that come (or rather used to come) in their tens of thousands to visit the area, entering the nuclear plant as well, after a full day tour are exposed to radiation levels of 0.1 mSv, a quantity equal to one chest X-ray. It’s not sustainable over a year, but it’s tolerable if you consider that there are areas on Earth where the natural radioactivity shows much higher and continuous values.

Quite often, there are also groups of young Ukrainians, the “stalkers,” who illegally enter the forbidden areas, living in abandoned houses for several days, if not weeks: “You feel free, you have no obligations towards anyone and you don’t even have to pay rent. You even find time to study and prepare for university exams,” says one of these young people. These new itinerant communities join around 180 samosely, local citizens, mostly elderly and retired, who have voluntarily resettled in the area since the first months after the accident.

The real obstacle that Russian troops will have to try to get around are the hotspots. These are areas, more or less vast and scattered all over the contaminated territory, containing considerable quantities of radioisotopes that are concentrated due to particular microclimates, the chemical composition of the soil and microorganisms capable of metabolizing elements such as cesium and strontium. Over the years, the Ukrainian police have identified paths that bypass these hotspots, and in any case, the continuous surveys made by specialized technicians are publicly available on the internet. Thus, the Russian command will have the possibility to plan the advance in the best way, choosing less invasive paths.

What is most worrying, not only to the Ukrainian government, but also to the international scientific community committed to monitoring the situation of Chernobyl, are the disturbances to the ecosystem that an “invasion” will cause in the whole area.

The dozens of tanks, trucks, jeeps, and the thousands of boots that will trample and turn over the soil will mix up the radioactive elements present in the area, releasing them into the atmosphere.

And once they leave the Exclusion Zone, the soil and clothes impregnated with radioisotopes will release them outside it, enlarging the area of contamination. Researchers will then be faced with the nightmare of having to repeat from scratch measurements and tracings that have resulted in a number of scientific findings, from both the medical and environmental point of view.

This enlargement of the contamination is likely to affect the hundreds of internal refugees from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics that have settled close to the borders of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. These are families, often without the heads of the family who have gone to find work in the main cities, who have found refuge in dilapidated houses, without electricity, drinking water or heating. A house in these areas where no one wants to live costs about €4,000, too much for those who have a state pension of €80-90. As a result, people are content to rent hovels with wooden walls, blocking the wind with paper, rags or metal sheets, for €3-4 per month.

Paradoxically, the safest place to be in case a conflict breaks out in Ukraine is what has long been seen as the least safe place in the world: the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Inside, workers have already been given precise instructions on safety procedures, but no one—beyond some possible propaganda—thinks that the plant will be an object of contention between the two sides. Putin knows well that any tampering or interference in the smooth running of the ongoing decommissioning and control of reactor number 4 would compromise the already delicate support given by Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader does not want internal obstacles to the project of Chinese energy revival, in which nuclear power has a predominant part. Bringing back the Chernobyl nightmare could derail the plan that he designed.

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