It was 10 a.m., 16 days into Russia’s war on Ukraine, and a land-line phone rang inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The site of the world’s worst nuclear-power disaster had become an impromptu prison, and an increasingly dangerous one.
The signalman on duty lifted the receiver and passed the call to shift supervisor Valentin Heiko, a veteran of the defunct facility. Mr. Heiko told managers on the other end of the line that the 210 technicians and support staff were in a desperate situation, held hostage while keeping watch over thousands of spent fuel rods.
The night before had brought another standoff between the exhausted technicians responsible for safeguarding the nuclear waste and the Russian soldiers who have been holding them on the job at gunpoint since the first hours of the war.
“The psychological situation is deteriorating,” Mr. Heiko said, updating managers in an office 30 miles away, two people on that call recalled. Some technicians, demanding to go home, were threatening to walk out, past the Russian tanks parked outside.
The supervisor, who celebrated his 60th birthday in captivity last week, said it was his duty to toil on as long as required. “Everyone wants to go home, but we know we need to stay.”
Since Feb. 23, Chernobyl’s technicians and support staff have been working nonstop. After arriving at 9 p.m. for a single night shift to monitor electrical transmission levels and the temperature inside the plant’s gigantic sarcophagus housing radioactive waste, they are approaching 500 hours on the job—snatching sleep on chairs in front of beeping machinery and on piles of clothes next to workstations.
Their diet has dwindled to porridge and canned food, prepared by a 70-year-old cook who at one point collapsed from exhaustion. Their phones have been confiscated and they are trailed by Russian soldiers through the nuclear plant’s labyrinth of reinforced-concrete corridors. [Continue reading…]