Kyiv (Dagbladet): While staff were seeking shelter when flight alarms sounded, Russian-born chief engineer Valerige Semenov (48) stared at screens in the control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine.
At 16.50 on Thursday, February 24, surveillance images showed great movements in the ghost town of Pripyat, which was evacuated after the catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986.
– In the pictures, I saw one heavy vehicle after another, thick smoke and a lot of smoke. That’s when I realized it was Russian tanks, says Semenov.
Vladimir Putin’s relentless war machine was marching at full speed toward Chernobyl, the site of the world’s largest nuclear disaster.
In an exclusive interview with Dagbladet, Chernobyl’s chief engineer tells how what was supposed to be a 12-hour shift turned into a 34-day nightmare during the Russian occupation.
It tells how close the world is truly It was another nuclear disaster in Chernobyl
The chief engineer recounts how he and the Chernobyl director tricked the Russians into entering negotiations.
His father worked in Chernobyl
Dagbladet meets 48-year-old Semenov outdoors in a residential area in central Kyiv. He lives near here, he says, but out of concern for his family’s safety, Dagbladet doesn’t want to publish the name of the place.
Semenov is a Ukrainian citizen, but not by birth. He was born in Russia, but his family moved to northern Ukraine at a young age. Father also worked at the Chernobyl power plant – before and after the catastrophic accident in 1986.
– You can say, we have experienced each of our crises, says Semenov.
Like most people who work at the power plant, the 48-year-old lived until recently in Slavutich, a town built for Chernobyl employees after the 1986 accident.
The city is located about 50 kilometers northeast of the power plant, but between Chernobyl and Slavutych there is a Belarusian Isthmus that can be crossed by train until February 24.
Semenov was on the last train on this route. A few hours later, Russian tanks rolled into Chernobyl.
– We were hoping they’d drive, but they obviously didn’t. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Suddenly there was a crowd of Russian soldiers in the area, says Semenov.
At first, Semenov noticed how the soldiers descended into the area through surveillance cameras.
He saw how the Russian forces pointed their weapons at the personnel and how the 170 soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard, who were guarding the area, were forced to surrender.
Semenov, together with the director of the Chernobyl power plant, decided to take measures to search for Russian soldiers and their commander in chief; Major General and First Lieutenant.
– The director asked the Russian officers politely what the purpose of their visit was. Then the officers replied that they had been ordered to “defend the power plant against Ukrainian extremists”. We treated it as an offer, says Semenov, which we tried to refuse.
On the outside, they put on a confident exterior. The chief engineer says they were confused on the inside.
– We were very nervous and shocked because we were busy.
Negotiate with the Russians
However, Semenov and the Chernobyl director were able to establish a line toward the Russian forces that may have been crucial to how the 34 days of occupation occurred.
In negotiations with Russian officers, Semenov and the director wanted to achieve three things:
- Chernobyl employees were treated well.
- That Russian forces did not control or interfere with the actual operation of the nuclear power plant.
- That 170 Ukrainian soldiers from the National Guard would be allowed to stay at the facility, and use them as guards.
– We immediately began a psychological war to maintain control over the power plant itself, which was perhaps the most important thing, says Semenov.
– Trick them around
The director and chief engineer explained to the Russian officers that Chernobyl was not just a nuclear power plant, that a huge tragedy had occurred there, and therefore there were a number of rules associated with staying in the region.
We simply tried to scare them into doing what they wanted, and we applied it thickly. We came up with a lot of rules, and claimed there was strict legislation regulating everything from how “visitors” are reported to how many admission tickets we can hand out. We tricked them into rolling over, says Semenov.
They were also able to convince the Russian officers that the Russian occupation forces themselves should clean up the chaos after them.
– We said we don’t have enough cleaners. More than 60 percent of the waste soldiers left was alcohol bottles, so it didn’t take much to clean them up afterward, Semenov says.
Not all requests from Chernobyl employees were well respected. Simply driving heavy vehicles in certain areas around the power plant can pose an immediate health hazard.
In some of the world’s most radioactive regions, Russian soldiers began digging trenches.
– Every now and then we were worried about whether they were going to plant something that might damage the system. Returning to the past, says Semenov, I think they will get what they deserve to dig into radioactive soil.
Although the administration was able to negotiate favorable terms for its employees, working conditions at Chernobyl during the 34-day occupation were far from fair, given the circumstances.
– The technical staff who worked on monitoring nuclear operations worked in shifts for 20 hours, because one always had to sit in this chair. They stayed in their places even though rockets and missiles flew over us. As managers, we were concerned about how employees would handle the situation, because it was incredibly stressful, says the chief engineer.
During this period, fierce fighting also broke out between the Russian invasion forces and the Ukrainian defense forces in Kyiv Oblast, which stretches from the Ukrainian capital and as far north as Chernobyl and the Belarusian border.
The fighting caused extensive damage to the area’s electricity grid. For six days, Chernobyl was without electricity from the outside, says the chief engineer.
– Those were the most dangerous days, says Semenov carefully.
Diesel was taken from the Russians
The power plant had enough fuel to keep the diesel generators running for 14 hours, and if the power was off completely, the nuclear power plant could be overheating.
It could have caused a chain reaction that could eventually have ended in a powerful explosion. In other words:
Another Chernobyl disaster.
– The danger was real, and this was the most dangerous and terrifying thing in the whole situation, says Semenov.
So he and the Chernobyl director approached the Russian officers and demanded that they supply enough diesel to run the generators.
– They understood the situation, and we were allowed to take diesel from military vehicles. In total, we took 200 tons of fuel from the Russians, says Semenov.
Then he starts laughing.
– Honestly, we didn’t need 200 tons, he adds.
When the occupiers’ diesel stocks began to run out, Russian officers demanded that Chernobyl be connected to the Russian electricity grid from Belarus.
At the same time, Semenov learned that the families of employees, including his own, were without electricity in Slavutych, which is located across the Dnipro River in the Chernihiv province.
– We said it was fine, but then they also had to connect Slavutich to the Russian power grid. To our great surprise, they said yes, as the chief engineer said.
“Burn in Hell, you bastards!”
Since Slavutych had not been under Russian occupation for more than a day, personnel at Chernobyl felt they could stand up to Russian forces, at least to some extent, says Semenov.
– After all, our families were safe, says the chief engineer.
This is not the case further south in Ukraine, in Enerhodar, where the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine is located – and in Europe. Here, Russian forces have controlled both the nuclear power plant and surrounding cities since last spring.
– What the Russians are doing in Innerhodar and the Zaporizhzhgi power plant is just horror. The employees there must be obedient, because their families are actually located in Russian families. Semenov says the situation is completely different.
In Chernobyl, there was a kind of interconnection between Ukrainian nuclear workers and the Russian occupation forces. Semenov believes that this is also why employees can have more freedom.
I went out and smoked one evening. There were also some Russian soldiers. In the sky above us, I suddenly saw Russian fighters firing missiles towards Kyiv. She cried without thinking: “Burn in hell, you bastards!”. Semenov said that the soldiers looked at me strangely, but somehow let her pass.
Fortunately, other employees were more reasonable than him, says the chief engineer.
– Despite the great pressure, the enormous workload and the extremely difficult conditions, the staff kept their heads calm. Semenov says that they are very disciplined and responsible, they manage to avoid dangerous situations.
After 34 days of occupation, Russian troops left Chernobyl. When they left the district, they violated the agreement they made with Semenov and the director:
– They took National Guard soldiers as prisoners of war. Since then, no one has seen them, says Semenov.
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