Russian forces may be withdrawing from Chernobyl, the Pentagon has said, as nuclear experts dismissed claims that occupying soldiers were suffering from acute radiation sickness.
A senior US defense official said that about 20 per cent of Russian troops had begun to depart from the site of the decommissioned power plant, which was seized on the first day of the invasion.
The Pentagon’s spokesman, John Kirby, suggested that Russia intended to “refit these troops, resupply them and probably employ them elsewhere in Ukraine”.
Yarsolav Yemelianenko, a member of the public council at the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, suggested that Russian soldiers might have radiation sickness after Belarussian news announced on Wednesday that seven busloads of soldiers had arrived at a radiation medicine center in Gomel, Belarus .
After the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, residents were evacuated from a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around the plant where the radiation levels were highest.
Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear operator, said the Russians had built trenches and fortifications in the highly contaminated ‘Red Forest’ in the exclusion zone.
Workers at the site said this month that soldiers had driven through the forest without protection, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust.
However, nuclear experts have pointed out that the likelihood of soldiers suffering from acute radiation sickness caused by the site today was low.
Patrick Regan, Professor of radionuclide metrology at the University of Surrey, told i: “I suspect that the radiation hazards are limited. There should be very little radiation that’s released there.
“The disaster happened ages ago. There’s some local contamination, that’s clear, but driving around outside shouldn’t release any additional radioactivity than was there before.”
Professor Regan pointed out that the most dangerous sources of radioactivity were now safely stored. Radioactive waste is secure in special casks in cooling ponds on site, while the destroyed fourth reactor is now covered by a £2bn safe confinement structure or ‘sarcophagus’.
Radiation monitors at the site are not currently sending data to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, Professor Regan said: “There is no obvious massive increase in radioactive material coming out of the Chernobyl area at the moment. If there was, we would be measuring it around Europe. You can’t hide that.”
Furthermore, years after the Chernobyl disaster, much of the radioactive material has already decayed, so the greatest danger to humans is long past.
Jeremy Gordon, nuclear commentator at Fluent in Energy and member of the World Nuclear Association, said: The most intense radiation comes from nuclear material with a short half-life – decaying fast and giving off all its radiation in a hurry. We’re talking seconds, minutes and hours. More than 35 years after the accident, that stuff is gone.
“To my knowledge people who developed acute radiation syndrome from a nuclear accident have been the ones on the spot, even in the room, when it took place. Not people in the general area and not decades later,” Mr Gordon said on Twitter.
“Even if there was a very intense radiation source still lying around it would likely only affect the troops who uncovered it, handled it or sat next to it. Probably not seven busloads of them.
“Exposures like these, especially internally from ingestion and inhalation, would raise their statistical chance of developing cancer, but it would not deliver the huge whole-body-at-once dose you need for acute radiation syndrome. It also wouldn’t make them feel physically sick.”
He added: “There are other reasons Russian forces might visit the medical radiation facility besides actual sickness.”
Professor Claire Corkhill, Chair in Nuclear Material Degradation at the University of Sheffield, tweeted: “I am an expert in this field, and I have consulted other biological radiation experts who have intimate knowledge of Chernobyl. There is NO chance of acute radiation sickness from being in the Red Forest. There is also an extremely LOW risk to any person who has spent time there.”
Meanwhile, the head of Energoatom has urged the IAEA to help ensure Russian nuclear officials do not interfere in the operation of occupied power plants.
Russian troops seized the active Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant at the beginning of March. Officials from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company, are present on the site.
Petro Kotin, chief executive of Energoatom, said: “[The IAEA] can influence this and they must influence this, and this question will be discussed.”
Mr Kotin was speaking after meeting Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA’s director-general, in Ukraine this week.
Mr Grossi said: “We are trying to be very active in order to ensure that as soon as possible, the situation is regressed, and the facilities are back in the hands of the Ukrainians.”