A Ukrainian official has provided VOA with exclusive photos of the aftermath of Russia’s five-week occupation of Ukraine’s decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, showing what he says are Russian trenches dug into radioactive soil near a 1986 nuclear accident at the site.
Evgen Kramarenko, director of the Ukrainian state agency managing the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl plant, sent the photos to VOA on Wednesday, saying he had taken them himself on a visit to the site with several of his colleagues the day before.
It was the first visit to the site by Kramarenko’s team since Russian troops withdrew from the plant and the surrounding area on March 31, ending an occupation that began on February 24, when Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor.
In a phone interview with VOA, Kramarenko said the photos show trenches that Russian troops dug using heavy machinery in a grassy field covering radioactive soil near the Chernobyl plant’s destroyed No. 4 reactor.
That reactor’s explosion on April 26, 1986, was the world’s worst nuclear accident, killing 31 people in its immediate aftermath and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate surrounding communities, including in nearby Belarus. The exclusion zone set up after the accident extends to 30 kilometers from the Chernobyl plant.
The track marks from heavy vehicles can be seen in some of Kramarenko’s photos of the trenches.
His photos are the first ground-level images from a Ukrainian governmental source to corroborate multiple reports, published in the past week, that the occupying Russian troops dug the trenches, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust in the process.
In a March 31 statement, Energoatom, the Ukrainian state-run company operating the plant, said the Russian troops had been exposed to “significant doses of radiation” and withdrew from the site in a panic at the first sign of illness.
VOA cannot independently verify the health status of the Russian troops who occupied the Chernobyl plant and later retreated to Belarus, a key Russian ally that has allowed Moscow to use its territory to attack Ukraine. Russia has been silent on the troops’ condition.
Belarus-based science journalist Siarhei Besarab told VOA that the area around Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor is contaminated with the three most common types of radiation: alpha particles, beta particles and gamma ray-irradiated soil.
“Given what we know about the area where the Russian soldiers were digging, it’s the most concentrated spot with all three types of radiation,” Besarab said.
The severity of the soldiers’ radiation poisoning would depend on the time they spent in the area and the type of contact they had, he added.
Kramarenko said Russian soldiers who inhaled radioactive dust may experience a worsening of chronic diseases or new health problems in the coming months and years.
“If the Russians who withdrew to Belarus got radioactive particles onto their clothes and military equipment, this also creates a health problem for anyone who comes near those objects,” Kramarenko said.
Earlier Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tweeted video from a drone that it said showed an aerial view of trenches that were dug by Russians near the Chernobyl plant.
The tweet references the Red Forest, a wooded area around the plant whose trees turned red after absorbing radiation from the 1986 explosion.
“Complete neglect of human life, even of one’s own subordinates, is what a killer-state looks like,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry wrote, in reference to Russia.
The drone video first appeared on Telegram. Its source was not clear.
In an article published March 28, Reuters said it spoke to two Ukrainian men who were working at the Chernobyl plant while it was under Russian occupation. Without naming them, the report quoted the two men as saying that none of the Russian troops whom they saw were wearing any gear that would protect them from radiation.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.