It began as a normal relocation to Chernobyl for Oleksiy Celesti, but as the night of February 24 turned into day, distant artillery fire and the arrival of Russian troops changed everything.
More than 100 workers, who arrived at the defunct nuclear plant just hours earlier for their night shift, are now stranded as Russian forces enter Ukraine and occupy vast tracts of land en route to Kiev.
The capture of Chernobyl by Russian forces triggered a week-long firefight that left the building with a brief power outage and staff closely monitored by attackers.
“We weren’t mentally prepared for it,” Celesti told AFP. “But we had no choice.”
As night shift supervisor, Celeste supervises a team of about a dozen people to monitor the power supply in Chernobyl, where the remains of a destroyed nuclear reactor are covered by a huge sarcophagus to prevent radioactive contamination.
The plant was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986. Since then, it has been maintained by thousands of Ukrainian workers and closely monitored by international experts to contain its radioactive waste.
Over the years, a carefully executed shift schedule and monitoring network has kept a close eye on radiation levels at the facility. Russian forces then drove Belarus across the border and occupied Chernobyl, capturing its workers and isolating them from the rest of the world.
“I realized that an accident was possible,” Celeste recalled.
“Emotional and emotional stress didn’t let me focus on it. We just tried to do our job and try to control all the parameters so that nothing would happen.”
Celesti said the most painful time of the occupation began on March 9, when power was cut off at the plant due to nearby fighting.
Experts acknowledge that a repeat of the 1986 disaster will not occur because of the absence of an efficient reactor. But still power consumption is vital to power the security infrastructure, including the cooling system, to facilitate nuclear fuel storage.
For days, workers relied first on their diesel supply and then on the fuel supplied by the Russians until they were able to re-route power through the Belarusian grid.
All the while, Ukrainians stuck at the plant were only able to catch a snippet of what was happening outside Chernobyl by listening to radio broadcasts and making occasional calls back home to one of the plant’s landlines.
As the workers could not return home, they gradually became dehydrated. It risked compromising their safety and ability to carry out security responsibilities.
“It was emotionally and emotionally difficult,” Celeste explained.
Employees were also closely monitored and forced to navigate a shiny network of checkpoints set up by the Russians at the base of the plant – disrupting basic movement and maintenance at the facility.
Ukrainian authorities have since accused the Russians of neglecting basic security during their occupation of Chernobyl, saying its troops had dug trenches and set up camps in contaminated areas that had received large amounts of radiation.
“They dug up radioactive soil, collected radioactive sand in bags for the fort, breathed in the dust,” said Energy Minister German Galushchenko in April, who claimed that Russian forces had been exposed to “surprising” amounts of radiation.
“Every Russian soldier will bring home a piece of Chernobyl. Dead or alive,” the minister added.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, later said Chernobyl had “increased levels” of radiation, but stressed that the matter was under control.
“The situation is not that we are taking these steps at the moment can be judged as a major threat to the environment and people,” he added.
Shelestiy was unable to confirm the details of the alleged Russian abuse in Chernobyl, where he was mostly forced to stay at his workstation and had little contact with their troops.
In uncertainty, Celesti said he tried to comfort his group, whose families were surrounded by mostly Russian troops in the nearby town of Slavutich.
Back in Slavutich, Mayor Yuri Fomichev walked a fine line, conducted relations with Russian forces, helped smuggle supplies into the beleagured community, and consoled the families of captive workers.
“I had to calm them down and convince them to be patient,” Fomichev said.
Built as a settlement for evicted families living near the plant in 1986 after the Chernobyl accident, Slavovich was one of the last purpose-built cities built from scratch in the last days of the Soviet Union.
For many of its inhabitants, the re-emergence of chaos in Chernobyl was an unfortunate occurrence.
“We were worried, nervous,” said Tamara Shairobokova, 75, a former Chernobyl employee who was resettled in Slavutich after the waterlogging.
“I was literally shocked that Russia invaded Ukraine. No one could have imagined it,” he added.
The whole episode also confuses Celeste. After their troops were defeated in the battle for Kiev, he was released after talks a few days before the Russians retreated.
“They said they were trying to get me out of something but I didn’t understand what it was,” Shelley said. “I don’t understand it.”
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)