Soldiers sit inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Ukrainian soldiers sit on top of a military vehicle parked outside the hotel in Pripyat, Ukraine, on February 4.Volodymyr Tarasov/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Image
  • More than 100 workers are stuck at Chernobyl after Russian forces seized it two weeks ago.
  • Nuclear experts worry that workers are getting too tired to properly oversee the power plant.
  • Chernobyl workers eat one meal per day and sleep on the floor, tables, or cots, the BBC reported.

Ukrainian workers continue to perform routine tasks at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant nearly two weeks after Russian forces seized the 20-mile exclusion zone.

But business isn't operating as usual. 

More than 100 Chernobyl staffers are living on-site in temporary dormitories, the BBC reported Monday. The staffers include night shift workers, firefighters, and medical staff from a nearby hospital, Ukraine's state nuclear regulator, SNRIU, told VOA last week.

Chernobyl workers now subsist on just one meal per day — mostly bread and porridge — and sleep on the floor, tables, or cots, the BBC said. They take turns working and sleeping.

SNRIU told VOA that the Chernobyl staff are being held prisoner. But a relative of one of the workers told the BBC that Russian troops were willing to let Chernobyl staff swap shifts with other power plant workers outside the site. (The BBC kept the relative anonymous for safety reasons.) Staffers fear for their safety if they leave the exclusion zone, however, and there is limited road or rail travel to take them home. 

Off-site contractors haven't been able to visit the exclusion zone, either. 

On Tuesday, SNRIU said there had been no scheduled activities, maintenance, or repair of systems and equipment at Chernobyl since February 24, the day Russian troops took over. That means the site's automated monitoring system for radiation hasn't been restored, the regulator said.

Without this data, staffers might not have the information they need to protect public heath and the environment, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Insider. As of Tuesday, however, SNRIU said the site's safety parameters were "still within the standard limits," citing reports from staffers.

Some experts worry that staffers are becoming too exhausted to safely oversee the power plant.

"It is, of course, a serious concern if critical tasks at a nuclear facility such as Chernobyl cannot be carried out effectively or at all, either because personnel are fatigued and overworked or if the right personnel, equipment, and materials cannot be delivered from off-site," Lyman said.

But nuclear experts are more fearful of an attack on the plant, which could kill workers on-site and potentially release radiation into the atmosphere.

'We must take action to help avert a nuclear accident'

Chernobyl dosimeter
A dosimeter measures slightly increased levels of radiation in an abandoned cow farm near Zalyshany, Ukraine.Mstyslav Chernov/AP Images

Chernobyl is the site of the world's worst nuclear power plant accident. In 1986, the core of a reactor opened at the plant, sending plumes of radioactive material into the air. Staffers are still working to clean up the site and permanently shut down its reactors, which no longer operate. 

Most of the area has been decontaminated, but there are still "hotspots" that contain relatively high levels of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope.

Military equipment and foot traffic in the area may elevate radiation levels by stirring up contaminated soil. The activity probably wouldn't release enough radiation to threaten people outside the exclusion zone, Lyman said. But "even local impacts could set back efforts to fully stabilize and clean up the site and eventually allow it to return to productive use," he added.

A military weapon accidentally striking Chernobyl is far greater cause for concern. In that event, Lyman said, the structures or soil could catch fire, causing radioactive material to degrade and potentially spread through the air.

"We must take action to help avert a nuclear accident in Ukraine that could have severe consequences for public health and the environment. We can't afford to wait," Rafael Mariano Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement on Monday.

He added that he would be willing to travel to Chernobyl for safety talks on how to protect Ukraine's nuclear power plants.

But most experts don't fear a repeat of the 1986 disaster.

"If you're talking about the kind of contamination that was seen when the reactor originally exploded, where it was cemented into the atmosphere and it traveled all over Europe and really around the Northern Hemisphere, that's not likely to occur just from a single explosion," Lyman told Insider.

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