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Image shows Russian troops camped in a radioactive zone during the Chernobyl assault: NPR

During its occupation of the Chernobyl nuclear site, Russia appears to have stationed troops in an area of ​​high radioactive contamination, according to new satellite images obtained by NPR from the company Planet.

The decision raises the possibility that Russia exposed its own soldiers to potentially harmful levels of radioactivity during its month-long ownership of the defunct nuclear facility.

Experts say the levels aren’t high enough to cause sudden radiation poisoning, but they could potentially increase soldiers’ long-term cancer risks.

“You shouldn’t go into a contaminated site and have people camping and digging in the dirt,” says Kathryn Higley, a nuclear engineer and health physicist at Oregon State University. While the risk of developing long-term cancer remains “very, very low”, she says it shows Russia’s disregard for the welfare of its own troops.

A risky halt for the troops

Chernobyl was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. A meltdown and explosion spewed radioactive material across the region and spilled fallout across Western Europe. Nearly 40 years after the accident, an exclusion zone – where it is forbidden to live or cultivate – remains in force around the nuclear power plant.

The satellite image shows an apparent Russian convoy and encampment in one of the most radioactive parts of the exclusion zone – on the edge of the so-called “Red Forest” – an area so contaminated by nuclear meltdown that most of the trees died in time. The image, dated March 16, shows the convoy of around 30 vehicles parked on a stretch of road about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) west of the ruined reactor. Nearby appears what looks like a small encampment, with berms, trenches for armored vehicles and a tent (location: 51.3892, 30.0479).

An image from March 28, days before Russia’s withdrawal from Chernobyl and the surrounding exclusion zone, shows fires burning near the camp site. A second image, from March 29, shows that the fire reached the camp and may have destroyed it before being extinguished.

Ukraine’s utility, Energatom, posted drone footage of the same site on its Telegram channel on April 6. These images show the charred area, along with the remains of what appear to be temporary buildings, as well as trenches and sandbag positions on the road.

International Atomic Energy says it is aware of reports that Russian troops may have been exposed to radiation, but so far has not been able to verify them.

Drone footage shows the remains of the camp.


“The IAEA has reviewed the images but can only undertake an independent radiological assessment once its experts are on site,” the agency said in a statement Thursday.

The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is prone to wildfires at this time of year, and it is still unclear whether the fire was natural, the result of Russian troop activity, or deliberately started by someone. another.

Russia seized Chernobyl in late February and occupied the site for more than a month.

Rumors of radioactive poisoning spread

Since the withdrawal of Russian forces on March 31, rumors have been circulating on social networks that his troops at Chernobyl had fallen ill after digging trenches at the site. A message on a Belarusian Telegram channel that monitors troop activity inside the country showed military vehicles arriving at a hospital in the city of Gomel, which specializes in radiation treatment.

Image shows Russian troops camped in a radioactive zone during the Chernobyl assault: NPR

Ukrainian servicemen patrol the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 5, 2022. Russia pulled out of the site days earlier.

Oleksandr Ratushniak/AP

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Oleksandr Ratushniak/AP

Image shows Russian troops camped in a radioactive zone during the Chernobyl assault: NPR

Ukrainian servicemen patrol the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 5, 2022. Russia pulled out of the site days earlier.

Oleksandr Ratushniak/AP

NPR was able to identify the location of a photo in the Belarusian Post as having been taken at the hospital, but was unable to verify whether the vehicles or their passengers were Russian. The Telegram channel also noted that Russian troops are regularly seen at the facility.

The Chernobyl zone that was used by Russian troops “is decently warm,” according to Tim Mousseau, an ecologist at the University of South Carolina who has studied the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for years.

But Mousseau and Higley both say the troops could not have been poisoned by radiation from living at the site, even for a month.

“It seems unlikely that a very large dose would be received just by sitting in the trenches,” Mousseau told NPR via email. “A more likely scenario, based on having brought dozens of visitors to the area with me over the years, is that there was a psychosomatic response upon discovering that they were in a highly contaminated region. .”

Higley adds that Russian soldiers may have experienced other health issues as well. “It could be stress, it could be cold, it could be bad food; all of these things can mimic the symptoms of radiation syndrome,” she says.

Higley says the decision to station forces in the forests around Chernobyl is “just one small bad thing on a list of many other bad things” Russia has done in Ukraine. Even the troops that have slept there face much greater risks if they are redeployed to forward positions in eastern Ukraine, where Russia would send reinforcements.

“In the grand scheme of things,” she says, “I think a bit of radiation risk from sleeping on the floor in Chernobyl is probably the least of their worries at this point.”

NPR’s Koko Nakajima and Tien Le contributed to this report.

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