Radiation levels around the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have risen in the wake of it being seized by the Russian military on Thursday evening.
Ukraine’s nuclear energy regulatory agency said that higher than usual gamma radiation levels were detected in the area near the decommissioned nuclear plant, but did not provide exact measurements.
The agency attributed the rise to a “disturbance of the topsoil due to the movement of a large amount of heavy military equipment through the exclusion zone and the release of contaminated radioactive dust into the air”.
The development came as an adviser to the Ukrainian president warned that the Chernobyl site may be used by Russia as a blackmail tactic against the West.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that he believes the site has been seized as a “possible blackmail” tactic.
“Chernobyl has been seized and I think they will blackmail the West. The President’s Office is preparing a response to possible blackmail through Chernobyl,” Mr Arestovich said, as reported by the news site Ukrinform.
Chernobyl is located next to the most direct route from Belarus to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and consequently runs along a logical line of attack for the Russian forces invading Ukraine.
Russian assaults overnight
On Friday, Russia’s military confirmed they had taken control of the closed nuclear power plant and said they plan to deploy paratroopers to help guard the station that is based just 90 kilometres north of Kyiv.
Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian defence ministry, said that the presence there “guarantees that terrorist groups or nationalist forces will not be able to take advantage of the situation and pull off a nuclear provocation”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) also said on Friday morning that workers at the nuclear power plant had been captured by the Russian forces.
“Russian forces have highly likely captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Workers have reportedly been detained by Russian troops,” the MOD said in a statement.
Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday morning, thought to be Moscow’s most aggressive action since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
By the end of the day, the Ukrainian government said 137 civilians and military personnel had been killed.
Chernobyl’s capture was ‘quickest way from A to B’
In seizing the site, Western military analysts said Russia was simply using the fastest invasion route from Belarus, an ally of Moscow and a staging ground for Russian troops.
“It was the quickest way from A to B,” said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
He added that Russia’s capture of the power station was not to protect it from further damage, saying Ukraine’s four active nuclear plants present a greater risk than Chernobyl, which sits within a vast “exclusion zone” roughly the size of Luxembourg.
Jack Keane, a former chief of the US Army staff, said Chernobyl “doesn’t have any military significance” but sits on the shortest route from Belarus to Kyiv, the target of a Russian “decapitation” strategy to oust the Ukrainian government.
Mr Keane called the route one of four “axes” Russian forces used to invade Ukraine, including a second vector from Belarus, an advance south into the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and a push north out of Russian-controlled Crimea to the city of Kherson.
The combined offensives amounted to the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.