Did Russian troops end up irradiated at Chernobyl?

(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

After sifting through news stories and social media commentary about this, I’m convinced there’s a grain of truth to it that’s being wildly exaggerated by the Ukrainians for propaganda reasons.

Given the shocking incompetence the Russian military has showed at times over the past month, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that some troops really were loitering in hot spots around the reactor, oblivious to its history.

But digging trenches? Why would they do that?

The source for this sensational claim is a single member of the Ukrainian agency responsible for managing the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And workers at that agency have a special reason to feel aggrieved at — and maybe lie about — Russia, even beyond the horrors visited on their countrymen over the past 40 days. When Russian troops seized the Chernobyl plant in late February, they took the crew overseeing the plant hostage and held them hostage for weeks, with little food or rest to keep them going. Crews typically rotate out in shifts, just like at any job site, except the imperative not to spend too much time on the job at Chernobyl is greater because of radiation exposure. But without a crew to oversee the generators that pump water over the plant’s spent fuel rods to keep them cool, the plant would have been at risk of a new disaster.

So the Russians kept the crew on-site on duty for weeks, without a break.

Did they consider the personnel logistics when they seized the plant? Seemingly not, which leaves us to wonder what else they didn’t consider safety-wise before occupying Chernobyl. According to a Reuters story published three days ago, two employees at the plant say they never saw Russian troops on the premises wearing protective equipment. Even the nuclear specialists from the Russian military who arrived a week after the occupation didn’t wear protective gear.

The lives of Russian soldiers have always been dirt cheap to the Kremlin so it would make sense that grunts might not have been warned to take precautions before arriving at Chernobyl. More from Reuters:

Russian soldiers who seized the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster drove their armoured vehicles without radiation protection through a highly toxic zone called the “Red Forest”, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust, workers at the site said.

The two sources said soldiers in the convoy did not use any anti-radiation gear. The second Chernobyl employee said that was “suicidal” for the soldiers because the radioactive dust they inhaled was likely to cause internal radiation in their bodies

Valery Seida, acting general director of the Chernobyl plant, was not there at the time and did not witness the Russian convoy going into the Red Forest, but he said he was told by witnesses that Russian military vehicles drove everywhere around the exclusion zone and could have passed the Red Forest.

“Nobody goes there … for God’s sake. There is no one there,” Seida told Reuters.

One source at the plant told Reuters that when he asked Russian troops if they knew the history of the place, they said they had no clue. They were told it was “critical infrastructure” and that’s all. It may seem unthinkable to you and me that they never would have heard of Chernobyl, but (a) many of these soldiers are surely in their early 20s, if not younger, and (b) I’m guessing that major national disasters don’t get a lot of coverage in history class in Putin’s nationalist school system.

What’s not in dispute is that the activity around Chernobyl in the early days of the war, when the two sides were fighting over the plant, caused an increase in radiation nearby. The IAEA reported a reading of 9.46 microSieverts per hour on February 25, which is elevated but not a risk to the public. Presumably the higher radiation was due to vehicles and machinery forcing radioactive dust up into the air. Of note, though: The IAEA hasn’t had a reading from the plant since March 9. It’s anyone’s guess what the radiation level there is now.

One more thing. According to the Pentagon, the Russian military is now pulling out of Chernobyl. Is that part of Putin’s pivot to eastern Ukraine, to try to secure the Donbas, or did the high command belatedly realize that its troops are being irradiated by the hour and finally decided to evacuate them?

All of the above points to the possibility that Russian soldiers really have been exposed to enough radiation that it’s going to cause them health problems at some point. But *so* much radiation that they’re already acutely ill and need immediate treatment in Belarus? One expert on the nuclear industry is skeptical:

If they’ve been moved to Belarus, says Gordon, it’s probably for a physical examination to see how much radiation they’ve absorbed, not because they’re critically ill. He doubts they’d even have felt sick while in the area, although their odds of developing cancer long-term will have risen. This is a shrewd point too:

Reports circulated two weeks ago that some Russian soldiers were so desperate to get off the battlefield that they were shooting themselves with Ukrainian ammunition to make it look like a combat wound. Someone in that mindset might feign sickness for the same reason. Or, as Gordon says, the Ukrainians might be hyping the risk from Chernobyl to spook the Russians into evacuating the area. It seems unlikely that anyone would be on their deathbed near term from having been there, merely that their life expectancy will have shortened somewhat. And if there’s anything Russian troops know well, it’s shortened life expectancies.