Chernobyl nuclear plant staff held hostage by Russian troops, White House claims

Ukraine did not report any casualties nor destruction at the site to the IAEA.

Updated: February 24, 2022 - 8:28pm

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Staff from the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant are being held hostage by Russian troops, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday.

Earlier that day, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said "unidentified armed forces" captured the plant in violation of international law.

The conquering of Chernobyl, located near Ukraine's northern border with Belarus, comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he calls a "special military operation" for the "demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine" early Thursday morning. The Russian military aggression follows months of troop build up around Ukraine.

"We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage," Psaki said.

"This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and deeply concerning," she said. "We condemn it and request their release."

Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted at 5 p.m. local time that "Russian occupation forces" were trying to seize the power plant.

"Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated," Zelenskyy said. "This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe."

The IAEA, the world's leading intergovernmental nuclear energy agency, confirmed the capture of the plant later that day.

"Ukraine has informed the IAEA that 'unidentified armed forces' have taken control of all facilities of the State Specialized Enterprise Chornobyl NPP, located within the Exclusion Zone," the agency wrote in a press release.

The Exclusion Zone is about 1,000 square miles which have been cleared of inhabitants due to the threat of radiation following the 1986 nuclear accident. While one reactor was destroyed in the incident, three were operational until 2000 and are still in the process of being shut down.

Ukraine did not report any casualties nor destruction at the site to the IAEA.

Forrest Rogers, reporter at the Swiss, German-language paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung tweeted a video of what appears to be Russian tanks at the power plant. 

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stressed that at the 2009 IAEA General Conference, member states adopted a decision stating that "any armed attack on and threat against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes constitutes a violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter, international law and the Statute of the Agency."