The staff at the Chernobyl radioactive waste facility in Ukraine, the site of a major disaster in 1986, has been able to go home and rest for the first time in nearly a month since Russian troops seized the area.
A single shift had been operating the facilities near the defunct power plant non-stop since Moscow took control on February 24. They were finally able to go home and rest, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Monday.
A new Ukrainian team arrived to replace their colleagues, while 13 people from the previous shift declined to rotate, the Vienna-based agency said. Most Ukrainian security guards remained on site as well.
“It is a positive – albeit long overdue – development,” IAEA Director General Mariano Rafael Grossi said on Sunday when the long-awaited rotation began.
The new shift includes two supervisors instead of the usual one as a back-up in case of emergencies. Ukrainian officials at the plant thanked the outgoing workers for having “heroically performed their professional duties.”
Chernobyl’s reactor, which exploded in 1986, is covered by the ‘New Safe Confinement’, a large hangar-like structure that prevents further contamination.
The IAEA added that the Zaporozhskaya Nuclear Power Plant, which is also under Russian control, was operating at two-thirds of its maximum capacity after two damaged power lines were repaired. The agency quoted the Ukrainian authorities as saying that “safety systems were fully functional” at the plant.
Moscow attacked the neighboring state in late February, following a seven-year standoff over Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk peace agreements, and Russia’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics in Donetsk and Lugansk. The German- and French-brokered protocols were designed to regularize the status of those regions within the Ukrainian state.
Russia has now demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country and it that will never join the US-led NATO bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.