Fears are growing for hundreds of workers trapped at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant for nearly a fortnight amid the country’s expanding humanitarian crisis.
Up to 300 technical staff and guards have not been able to leave the plant since February 23, the day before Chernobyl’s spent-fuel and radioactive waste facilities were seized by invading Russian forces.
There are also concerns for workers held hostage at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest. It was captured by Russian forces last Friday.
At Chernobyl, workers are continuing to go about their duties and the atmosphere is said to be calm. But the BBC said it had been told that conditions inside the plant – the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986 – were difficult, with food and medicine limited.
There are some reports that workers are being given just one meal of porridge a day and can sleep only on their desks, and only for two hours at a time.
One relative of a stranded worker has told the BBC that Russian guards would let them swap shifts – but refused to guarantee their safety on the journey home, nor of workers travelling to take their place.
“I’m extremely concerned about these developments. In order to be able to operate safely and securely, management and staff must be allowed to carry out their vital duties in stable conditions without undue external interference or pressure,” International Atomic Energy Agency director general, Rafael Grossi, said.
The United Nations agency said it was especially concerned that technical staff be allowed to be rotated out of the plant on safety grounds.
The Ukrainian regulator said it faced “problems communicating with personnel” at Chernobyl, the IAEA said, adding that communication was possible only via email.
Russian soldiers are inside the 32-kilometre Chernobyl exclusion zone and have surrounded the perimeter of the plant.
Russia said it had secured the site jointly with the Ukrainian national guard. But Ukraine disputes this and said Russian troops had full control.
The IAEA said Russian forces that had also placed staff at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant under their command and restricted communications with the outside world.
The IAEA said it was “extremely concerned” about developments at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, citing information from Ukraine’s nuclear regulator.
“Ukraine reports that any action of plant management – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units – requires prior approval by the Russian commander,” the IAEA said in a statement.
“In a second serious development, Ukraine has reported that the Russian forces at the site have switched off some mobile networks and the internet so that reliable information from the site cannot be obtained through the normal channels of communication,” it added.
Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces had seized control of Zaporizhzhia on Friday after setting an adjacent training facility on fire.
Russia’s defence ministry blamed the attack on Ukrainian saboteurs, calling it a “monstrous provocation”.
The fire was quickly extinguished and there was no damage to reactors or release of radioactive material but the incident raised concerns about the potentially catastrophic consequences should the conflict damage one of the country’s four operating nuclear power plants.
Push to allow civilians safe passage out of Ukraine
Elsewhere, Western nationals are urging Russia at the UN to allow safe passage to civilians in besieged Ukrainian cities and aid to areas of fighting, saying the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is rapidly deteriorating.
Envoys from many countries, including the US, Ireland and France, as well as UN aid chief Martin Griffiths, have sounded the alarm over the rapidly rising number of civilian casualties, including women and children and displaced people.
“We need Russia’s firm, clear, public and unequivocal commitment to allow and facilitate immediate, unhindered humanitarian access for humanitarian partners in Ukraine,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at the UN Security Council meeting called to discuss the humanitarian crisis.
Russia had offered Ukrainians escape routes to Russia and Belarus, its close ally, early on Monday after weekend evacuation ceasefire attempts failed.
“I don’t know of too many Ukrainians who wish to seek refuge in Russia. This is hypocrisy,” France ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said.
More than 1.7 million people have fled Ukraine, many Western companies have pulled out and the West has imposed harsh sanctions on Russian banks and President Vladimir Putin.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russian envoy to UN, accused Ukrainian authorities of not allowing civilians to flee.
Moscow, which denies targeting civilians, has vowed to press ahead with the campaign it launched on February 24 and calls a “special military operation”.
Mr Griffiths, the UN aid chief, told the meeting all parties must take constant care to spare civilians, who should be allowed safe passage to wherever they would like to flee.
Humanitarian corridors should also be established, he said.
“Civilians in places like Mariupol, Kharkiv, Melitopol, and elsewhere desperately need aid, especially life-saving medical supplies,” he said.
Russian forces are pressing on with their sieges and bombing of Ukrainian cities on the 12th day of the war. In the encircled southern port city of Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of people remained trapped without food and water under regular bombardments.