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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about Russia and nuclear weapons while criticizing recent Russian troops’ operations at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Tuesday during a joint news conference in Kyiv with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Mariano Grossi.

“Today on the 36th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, again the world was just a step from disaster because for the Russian troops, the plant and the entire was just another combat action zone where they didn’t care for nuclear safety,” Zelensky said. 

Zelensky accused the Russian troops of operating with little regard to nuclear danger and of looting and damaging several areas of the plant, including the system control center and laboratory. 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine was occupied by Russian forces just a few weeks ago and is now back under Ukrainian control. 

He warned that their carelessness signals the danger of Russia using nuclear weapons.  

“Given the level of the threat, we believe Russia has no right to turn nuclear energy into weapons and blackmail the world with the use of nuclear weapons,” Zelensky said. 

During the news conference, Zelensky personally thanked the staff members who stayed to maintain the plant as the Russian troops occupied. The staff was offered medals for their work. 

Zelensky and Grossi discussed the current level of nuclear threat and damage to the facilities. 

Grossi said he agreed that the IAEA would continue to work to restore the capacity and infrastructure that was damaged in recent weeks. 

“In spite of these difficulties, it’s important to look into the future, look into peace, the moment that Ukraine will regain its peace, its tranquility, and the safety that all its citizens deserve,” Grossi said.

Grossi made a working visit to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, marking 36 years since an explosion there “spread a radioactive cloud over large parts of the Soviet Union, now the territories of Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” as the UN describes it. 

Nearly 8.4 million people in the three countries are known to have been exposed to the radiation, the UN also says. 

The IAEA chief said of the visit, “We are marking the day. We are remembering what needs to be remembered. We are paying respect and honor to those who deserve it, but we are working.”  

During the working visit, the IAEA delivered a first batch of equipment, including radiation-monitoring equipment, Grossi said. IAEA safety inspectors are working closely with their Ukrainian counterparts to monitor and compare radiation measurements at the plant and the exclusion zone and then maintain a presence “for as long as the situation requires,” Grossi added, while speaking on scene to reporters. 

When asked by one reporter how close Chernobyl had been to another disaster while under Russian occupation, Grossi said that while the situation was “completely different” than the 1986 explosion with a then working nuclear reactor, that it still “could have developed into an accident.” 

All credit for avoiding a worse fate was due to the operators, the IAEA chief said. 

“I think the first credit must go to the operators. To these people here, because they carried on their work in spite of all the difficulties. In spite of the stress, in spite of the fact that they could not be working normally,” he said

Darshan Shah
the authorDarshan Shah