The Chernobyl nuclear power plant and all facilities in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been completely disconnected and are now without electricity, the Ukrainian state energy company announced.
Russian forces attacked the former nuclear facility on the very first day of the invasion (February 24), seizing it after heavy fighting and taking its approximately 210 employees hostage, Live Science previously reported. Now that the plant has been disconnected from the power grid, the approximately 20,000 units of spent nuclear fuel stored in the plant’s cooling tanks will no longer have active cooling.
Ukrainian officials have warned that this could increase the likelihood of evaporation and release of nuclear material and give a dangerous dose of radioactive material to plant personnel. Some nuclear power experts, however, warned that because the spent fuel rods are now 22 years old and much cooler than they were, this event is unlikely.
Related: 5 strange things you didn’t know about Chernobyl
“The spent fuel rods are at least 22 years old. They have very little heat to dissipate,” Mark Nelson, executive director of the Radiant Energy Fund, which advises companies and nonprofits on nuclear power, wrote on Twitter.
“Their heat is low enough that experts I’ve talked to expect weeks or even months to heat the water enough to dry out the pool. Even then, natural air circulation should be sufficient.”
Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP) blamed the power outage on “damage caused by the occupants,” although there has not yet been independent verification of the cause.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the backup diesel generators at the Chernobyl plant had a 48-hour capacity and called for a cease-fire to restore power.
Meanwhile, officials from the U.N.‘s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed growing concern for the welfare of Chernobyl staff, who have been held hostage at the plant for two weeks. Workers used to leave the radioactive plant after hours, but are now forced to live at the site.
Systems set up to monitor nuclear materials at the Chernobyl radioactive waste facility stopped transmitting data to the U.N. nuclear watchdog Tuesday, March 8.
Safeguards are the technical measures the IAEA uses to track nuclear materials and ensure they do not fall into the wrong hands. With these offline, the agency has no way of knowing the location of nuclear materials at the plant, increasing the possibility that they could fall into the wrong hands.
The IAEA said in a statement that “remote transmission of data from the safeguards monitoring systems installed at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had been lost” and that while workers have “limited access to food and water, and medicine,” the “situation for the staff was deteriorating.”
The facility’s staff is responsible for decommissioning the site and ensuring the safe disposal of radioactive materials inside the plant’s former reactors. However, since the Russian occupation of Chernobyl, this work has been suspended. Prior to the power outage, workers could only be contacted by e‑mail.