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Photos Indicate Russian Looting of Radioactive Materials From Ukraine’s Chernobyl

Ukrainian "Ecocenter" nuclear lab in Chernobyl after Russian occupation, April. 5, 2022. (Photo courtesy Evgen Kramarenko)
Ukrainian “Ecocenter” nuclear lab in Chernobyl after Russian occupation, April. 5, 2022. (Photo courtesy Evgen Kramarenko)

The scale of Russia’s looting of Ukraine has become clearer with new photos indicating Russian theft of hazardous materials from a site near Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant, and another image from Belarus adding to evidence that Russian soldiers mailed looted goods home.

VOA has obtained exclusive photos of a nuclear laboratory from which a Ukrainian official says Russian troops stole radioactive material that could be harmful if mishandled.

The nuclear lab seen in the previously unpublished photos is located in the city of Chernobyl. It is housed in a building run by a state agency managing the exclusion zone around Chernobyl’s nearby decommissioned nuclear power plant, where a 1986 explosion caused the world’s worst nuclear accident.

The director of the agency, Evgen Kramarenko, provided the laboratory photos to VOA, saying he took them on an April 5 visit, five days after Russian troops withdrew from Chernobyl. They had occupied the city and the nuclear power plant on February 24 at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“We have a laboratory that had a big quantity of radioactive instruments that are used to calibrate our radiation dosimeters,” Kramarenko told VOA. A dosimeter is a safety device, typically worn by individuals as a badge, that measures exposure to ionizing radiation, including nuclear radiation.

The agency’s dosimeters are calibrated using small metallic containers of radioactive material made by Ukrainian state enterprise USIE Izotop, which displays a photo of them on its website.

“Most of those calibration instruments were stolen. They look like coins. If the Russian soldiers carry them around, it’s very dangerous for them,” Kramarenko said.

Belarus-based science journalist Siarhei Besarab told VOA that the small size of the instruments may make them appear innocuous to the uninformed observer.

“But if a person comes into direct contact with them, these kinds of instruments could cause radiation burns to the skin in as little as two minutes,” Besarab said.

The photos shared by Kramarenko show a room with blue-colored walls containing computers and other equipment. It is part of a lab known as an Ecocenter whose functions include improving the management of radioactive nuclear waste.

The lab opened in 2015 and cost $6 million to build with support from the European Union, according to a March 22 Facebook post by the Ukrainian agency.

In Kramarenko’s photos, one of the lab’s computers can be seen lying on the floor with its contents removed and another can be seen tilted over on a desk, with other items strewn about on desks and on the floor.

Another photo shows a machine called an automated spectrometer, with its glass compartment and cabinet doors opened.

The agency had published several photos of the nuclear lab as it appeared prior to the Russian occupation in its March 22 Facebook post. The dates of those images were not shown.

In one of the pre-occupation photos, the same automated spectrometer seen in Kramarenko’s April 5 photo can be seen in its normal state, with its glass compartment and cabinet doors closed.

In another pre-occupation photo, a separate red-and-gray colored machine can be seen in its normal state. A close-up of one of Kramarenko’s April 5 photos in which the same machine is visible reveals that some of its parts are missing.

In a Saturday Facebook post, Kramarenko’s agency said occupying Russian troops stole samples of fuel-containing materials from the lab in addition to the radioactive calibration instruments. The agency said it was possible that the Russians threw away the items elsewhere in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, but that a likelier scenario is that they kept items as “souvenirs.”

Kramarenko said the Russian troops also took computer servers and memory units from his agency’s building. He shared additional April 5 photos showing a gutted-out computer server rack cabinet with wires dangling and close-ups of computers with internal parts removed.

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