“What’s more, the international community’s inaction on the breach of these conventions sends a very dangerous message: that they don’t work. Sure, they may still hold up as a prosecutorial argument in international court, but what good will that do when Putin’s army is already knocking at the front door?”

“Do not draw your attention away from Chernobyl” (Part Two)

By Emma Buchman, MO Foundation Digital Content Director & Blog Editor

Part Two

Emma Buchman is the director of March On Maryland, digital content director of March On Foundation, and editor of the MO Foundation Blog. She has studied Chernobyl and its liquidators for close to three years and is currently researching the ongoing war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. Emma also contributes to a website that collects any and all information on the Chernobyl disaster, specifically sources contemporary to the time of the accident and memoirs from liquidators. 

Be sure to read Part One for more historical context.

**Note from the author- Below is an op-ed emphasizing on the historical perspective based on independent research. For scientific analysis, please see recommended resources at the end of the blog post.

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Chernobyl is sacred ground meant to be tread upon lightly, both out of respect and… caution. The efforts to contain the radiation will continue for years to come. There is still a devoted staff that works there to make sure the New Safe Confinement is intact and doing its job to protect the remains of the 4th reactor. Without the New Safe Confinement,  radiation cannot be appropriately contained. There are people who still live there (yes, really!) – people who never left, people who came back; not to mention the residents of neighboring towns and villages outside of the Exclusion Zone. Not to mention there’s an entire 30km zone to administer that contains pockets (and sometimes forests) of intense radiation.

Thus far, Ukraine has more than sufficiently proven that not only are they the proper stewards of the plant by sovereignty, but also in terms of their care and devotion to Chernobyl. Under their stewardship, the mitigation of the consequences of the accident became an international collaboration. The New Safe Confinement was built in partnership with at least 45 different countries, the largest initiative for nuclear safety in history. There are already international initiatives in place to create a framework of global support for Chernobyl, and this is an excellent foundation to start from.

But what does any of that mean if we cannot help Ukraine protect it? It seems that the international community is much more open to supporting mitigation efforts above preventative measures, but with Chernobyl this is simply unacceptable. When Academician Legasov designed the original Shelter (frequently called the “sarcophagus”), he accounted for every potential danger. He even considered earthquake damage when Ukraine as a nation is nowhere near any fault lines! But containing Chernobyl requires every failsafe, and we are currently failing to live up to that standard.

 

What’s more, the international community’s inaction on the breach of these conventions sends a very dangerous message: that they don’t work. Sure, they may still hold up as a prosecutorial argument in international court, but what good will that do when Putin’s army is already knocking at the front door? 

 

Watching Chernobyl become a battlefield on the very first day of Russia’s invasion was, in a word, revolting. Watching the West and institutions like the United Nations and their nuclear arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), do the bare minimum to address this was, in two words, absolutely maddening. Updates and strong words of condemnation are great, but I have always considered that the beginning of addressing a problem, not the end. 

And the invasion itself was just the beginning. Every day, it seemed like the Russian military was doing their damnedest to desecrate the Zone that they once helped to protect. Here are just some of the examples:

  • Within the first days of the occupation, their heavy military vehicles kicked up radioactive dust and raised radiation levels.
  • They traumatized the staff and held some of them hostage for over a month.
  • They damaged the radiation monitoring system.
  • They dug trenches in the Red Forest, the most radioactive part of the Zone.
  • They forced over 150 members of the Ukrainian National Guard to live underground in a bunker for 30 days of the occupation and then brought them with them when they withdrew. Some of them are thought to have been sent to Russia.
  • They ruined experiments that may not be replicable, meaning we will never be able to reap the rewards of the researchers’ hard work and passion.
  • They used it as a military foothold and concentrated heavy equipment and weapons there. One of their targets: Bucha.
  • They stole personal belongings from the staff, including a dog.
  • They stole radioactive samples and other radioactive materials used in dosimeters.
  • They conducted combat operations that caused fires.
  • Their occupation prevented Ukrainian firefighters from putting out wildfires that were occurring in the Zone.
  • They looted offices and labs, some of which were designated for monitoring radiation.
  • One of the labs they destroyed was built only recently as a collaboration between Ukraine and the European Union. It was made to develop a better infrastructure for handling radioactive materials. It cost €6 million. 
  • They vandalized abandoned vehicles driven by Soviet traffic police who helped evacuate people after the accident.
  • Rosatom (Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation) took part in all illegal activities (some are still present at the Zaporizhzhya NPP)

There is a lot of action that the international community could have taken in response to Russia’s conduct at Chernobyl, and none of it was done. There is already international policy in place meant to protect all nuclear power plants from attack, including the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage and Article 56 of the Geneva Convention. The fact that they were able to do all of this without universal condemnation from the international community and suspension of their rights and privileges in the IAEA and UN at the least is highly disconcerting. What’s more, the international community’s inaction on the breach of these conventions sends a very dangerous message: that they don’t work. Sure, they may still hold up as a prosecutorial argument in international court, but what good will that do when Putin’s army is already knocking at the front door? 

There is still action that the UN, the IAEA, and the global community can take to hold Russia accountable:

  • One step that the IAEA has already taken (and should be commended for) is facilitating access to the Exclusion Zone by experts in safety and security. They’re set to arrive today to provide equipment to Chernobyl staff and assist with radiological assessments, and restore safeguard monitoring systems. I would encourage them to continue this trend by also sending experts to help salvage what they can of the experiments that the Russian occupation and looting might have ruined.
  • Until Russia gets with the program, they shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions within the UN or the IAEA. Their never-ending stream of horrific war crimes should have already been enough to do that, but here we are. As of now, they are still allowed to make decisions on the UN Security Council, and they currently serve on the board of governors for the IAEA. The logical choice is the suspension of Russia’s rights and privileges in the IAEA and the entire UN until they stop their war on Ukraine and vow not to attempt another attack on Chernobyl.
  • The IAEA has the power and legal ability to initiate hearings and appeal to the UN General Assembly to investigate all of Russia’s wrongdoings in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They can also appeal to other organizations to form a coalition.
  • Advocate to make Chernobyl a World Heritage Site.

In January 1988, Deputy Minister Shcherbina implored his colleagues, “Do not draw your attention away from Chernobyl.” On this, the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, I plead with the world to do the same. If we’re not going to publicly prioritize the safety of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, then what will we prioritize?

Вічная Пам’ять (Memory Eternal) – may the memory of every Chernobyl plant worker, firefighter, and liquidator forever be a blessing.

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While I work extremely hard to stay as informed about Chernobyl and Russia’s war against Ukraine as possible, it is not the same as hearing information from more experienced experts. It is especially different from the experience of those who are on the ground. I HIGHLY recommend watching this expert discussion on Chernobyl in the context of the war on Ukraine, which includes the presentation by Dr. Egle Rindzeviciute about making Chernobyl a World Heritage Site.

Here are a *few* of the other accounts and works that I recommend:

Chernobyl:

  • My Chernobyl: The Human Story of a Scientist and the Nuclear Power Plant Catastrophe by Alexander A. Borovoi
    • A liquidator and scientist who worked very closely with Academician Legasov.
  • Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster by Kate Brown
  • Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown
  • Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
    • The definitive history of the Chernobyl accident, in my opinion.
    • GREAT for beginners.
  • State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management

War in Ukraine:

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