Five weeks ago, Chornobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history, was taken over by invading Russian troops. Within a couple of weeks, power had gone out at the plant, putting the hundreds of Ukrainian workers held captive inside at risk from radioactive dust, and the surrounding forests of radioactive plants and fungi were ablaze.
People were, understandably, a little worried.
Then last week, even worse news emerged: according to a report in Science and confirmed by a source for the New Scientist, Russian troops in the area have looted a radiation monitoring lab in Chornobyl village, apparently taking with them artifacts that could potentially be used to create a dirty bomb – a weapon created by mixing conventional explosives with radioactive materials.
Speaking to Science, Anatolii Nosovskyi, director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv, reported that there are even more dangerous materials held at the Chornobyl facility whose “fate … is unknown to us.” Among these materials are samples from the Unit Four meltdown 35 years ago, still intensely radioactive, as well as what Nosovskyi calls “powerful sources of gamma and neutron radiation” used in the testing of devices.
As scary as this may sound, though, experts say there’s not much reason to worry – at least, no more than we already were. Radioactive sources easily available in labs and offices would be “Mainly … calibration sources, material you use to calibrate detection equipment,” Professor Bruno Merk, Research Chair in Computational Modelling for Nuclear Engineering at the University of Liverpool, told New Scientist.
“These radioactive sources you can steal in every hospital. It would always have been possible for someone to sneak in and steal something. I don’t see that the risk is any higher than before the Russians invaded,” he explained.
“If they have plutonium laying around in offices, then they have massively broken [global] contamination laws. There are clear rules from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] for this and that doesn’t seem likely.”
While Russia has previously denied that its forces have put nuclear facilities inside Ukraine at risk, Ukrainian officials have condemned the “irresponsible” activities of the troops around Chornobyl.
“In the context of nuclear safety, the irresponsible and unprofessional actions of Russian servicemen present a very serious threat not only to Ukraine but to hundreds of millions of Europeans,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk posted on her Telegram account Sunday, according to Reuters. The transport of old and badly maintained Russian weapons around the plant risked damaging the containment vessel protecting the destroyed Unit Four reactor, she said, which would “inevitably lead to the release in the atmosphere of a considerable amount of radioactive dust and contamination not only in Ukraine but also in other European countries.”
Meanwhile, reports from inside the besieged power plant reveal an unfolding humanitarian crisis, with workers forced to take on 24-hour shifts with limited access to basic necessities like food and medicine.
Efforts are ongoing to secure Ukraine’s thousands of other nuclear sites – although “there are a lot of radioactive sources that are not on anyone’s radar … Even Ukraine’s radar,” Vitaly Fedchenko, a nuclear security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Science.
Nevertheless, Merk told New Scientist, the threat from a dirty bomb built from Chornobyl artefacts remains low:
“There are so many radioactive sources around the world,” said Merk. “If someone wants to get their hands on this there’s an easier way.”