Unprotected Russian soldiers disrupt radioactive dust in Chernobyl’s highly toxic “Red Forest.”

Russian soldiers drove armored vehicles without radiation shields through Chernobyl’s highly toxic “red forest,” kicking up radioactive dust, workers at the site said.

A Chernobyl official said the act was “suicidal” for the soldiers who seized the nuclear disaster site because the radioactive dust they inhaled was likely to cause internal radiation in their bodies.

Radiation levels at Chernobyl have increased as heavy military vehicles pounded the ground, Ukraine’s State Nuclear Inspectorate said on February 25.

But until now, details about what exactly happened hadn’t surfaced.

The two Ukrainian workers were on duty when Russian tanks entered Chernobyl on February 24 and took control of the site, where workers are still responsible for safely storing spent nuclear fuel and overseeing the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986.

Both said they saw Russian tanks and other armored vehicles moving through the red forest, which is the most radioactively contaminated part of the zone around the power plant some 100km north of Kyiv.

Regular soldiers, with whom one worker spoke when they worked with him at the facility, did not hear about the blast, he said.

Russia’s military said radiation levels remained within normal levels after the plant was captured, and their actions prevented possible “nuclear provocations” by Ukrainian nationalists.

Russia has previously denied that its forces have threatened nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to the reports from Chernobyl workers.

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The Red Forest, so named because dozens of square kilometers of pine trees turned red after absorbing radiation from the blast, is thought to be so badly contaminated that even nuclear power plant workers are not allowed to go there.

“No one goes there… for God’s sake. There is nobody there,” said Valery Seida, acting general director of the Chernobyl plant, who was not there at the time of the Russian invasion.

But the Russian military convoy drove through the zone, the two employees said. One of them said it used a deserted road.

“A large convoy of military vehicles drove down a road just behind our facility, and that road passes by the red forest,” one of the sources said.

“The convoy kicked up a large column of dust. Many radiation protection sensors showed exceedances,” he said.

After the arrival of Russian troops, the two plant workers worked alongside colleagues for nearly a month until they were allowed home last week when Russian commanders allowed replacements for some workers to be sent.

Reuters could not independently verify their accounts, which were given by phone on Friday and on condition of anonymity, because they feared for their safety.

The next day, Russian troops captured the town of Slavutych near Chernobyl, where most of the factory workers live.

Seida and the mayor of Slavutych said Monday that Russian forces have since left the city.

Reuters was unable to independently determine radiation levels for people in close proximity to the Russian convoy entering the Red Forest.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister warned of the radiation hazard at Chernobyl as she criticized Russian forces for “militarizing” the exclusion zone.

Iryna Vereshchuk called on the UN Security Council to take immediate steps to demilitarize the zone and to send a special mission to eliminate the risk of an accident at the site of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster.

Ukraine’s state agency for restricted zone management said on February 27 that the last recording it had on a sensor near nuclear waste dumps – before it lost control of the monitoring system – showed the absorbed radiation dose was seven times higher was than normal .

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on February 25 that radiation levels at the Chernobyl site reached 9.46 microsieverts per hour, but remained “within an operating range” recorded in the exclusion zone from the time it was created and posed no threat to represented the general population.

The IAEA standards, listed on the agency’s website, equate to safe levels of up to 1 millisievert per year for the general population and 20 millisieverts per year for those who work with radiation, where 1 millisievert is equal to 1,000 microsieverts.

The IAEA said it stopped receiving surveillance data from the Chernobyl site as of March 9.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is still considered dangerous by Ukrainian authorities. Entering the disaster site without permission is a crime under Ukrainian law.

Additional coverage from Reuters Unprotected Russian soldiers disrupt radioactive dust in Chernobyl’s highly toxic “Red Forest.”

Fry Electronics Team

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