Russia may have chosen to capture the Chernobyl nuclear plant because strategically “it was just in the way” of its military plans in Ukraine, it has been suggested.
Ukrainian officials have reportedly said they have lost control of the Chernobyl facility, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, after forces waged a fierce battle with Russian troops.
Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst with the Rusi think tank, said the site of the nuclear reactor 80 miles north of the capital Kyiv could have been “just in the way” of the Russian forces who were crossing into Ukraine.
He said: “Going through the Chernobyl zone is one of the shortest routes to get from Belarus to Kyiv. It is an exclusion zone that is heavily irradiated, which means it is, by all accounts, not as heavily defended as other areas.
“It could have been just because they (troops) wanted to pass through that area.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had warned Russian forces were trying to seize the plant where there is still nuclear material.
It is unclear how much damage has been caused or the extent to which it could be a hazard for surrounding areas.
A nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded in April 1986, spewing radioactive waste across Europe.
The building containing the reactor was covered in 2017 with an enormous shelter aimed at containing radiation still leaking from the accident until the site can be dismantled, which is expected to take until 2064.
Ukraine also uses the deserted zone for its centralised storage facility for spent fuel from the country’s other remaining nuclear power plants.
A Ukrainian official said Russian shelling had hit a radioactive waste repository and an increase in radiation levels was reported, although experts were not easily able to check the extent of the damage before Russian forces reached the site.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it is following the situation in Ukraine “with grave concern” and appealed for maximum restraint to avoid any action that may put Ukraine’s nuclear facilities at risk.
Mr Reynolds said it “is a little bit of a mystery” why Chernobyl would have been chosen for capture, and that Ukrainian defence plans have been closely guarded for reasons of operational security.
He said: “It is right on the border and I don’t believe the Ukrainians would have put many troops there.
“It would have likely been light resistance.
“The Russian troops are still fresh and it is right on the border.
“I can’t see them having had that as a particular area they would want to hold,” he added.
“I think the Ukrainian military, because of its lack of medium-range air defence, is vulnerable to air attack given the Russian capabilities, and it lacks artillery.
“Really, the Ukrainians’ best chance of defence is in urban areas and also deeper into their own territory once Russian supply lines have been stretched a bit.”