The Next Chernobyl? Abandoned Siberian Factory Could Cause Similar 'Environmental Catastrophe,' Warns Official

The head of Russia's environmental watchdog has warned of an "ecological Chernobyl" unless an abandoned and dilapidated chemical plant in the Siberian city of Irkutsk is dealt with swiftly.

In 1986, the reactor at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, sited in what is now Ukraine, went into meltdown and exploded during a test.

Thousands of people are believed to have died as a consequence of exposure to Chernobyl's radiation and the disaster caused environmental damage that will last thousands of years.

Svetlana Radionova, chief of Rosprirodnadzor, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that what she saw during a recent visit to the site of the Usoliekhimprom plant alarmed her.

In 2017, the chlorine plant was declared bankrupt and the facility left by its "careless owners" to fall into its current state, Radionova said.

She witnessed "huge amounts" of mercury contamination, which requires urgent de-mercurization, as well as pressurized containers full of unknown hazardous chemicals.

"No one knows what is there," Radionova told Izvestia.

Radionova said large wells carrying oil waste pose an enormous risk of pollution to the Angara River, which flows nearby to the plant, as their walls could burst.

"In fact, this is in environmental catastrophe territory. We need to act now otherwise we will have an 'ecological Chernobyl,'" she told the publication.

Rosprirodnadzor has appealed to the government to take ownership of Usoliekhimprom, Radionova said, and hopes that the agency's plea is heard.

Now, she wants comprehensive legislation to deal with owners of similar plants that pose environmental risks, and huge fines for those who break the rules.

Irkutsk, through which the Angara River flows, is home to around 600,000 people.

It is the sixth-largest city in Siberia, the vast expanse of Russian wilderness that is globally important for its ecology and wildlife.

This month, Ukraine inaugurated the world's largest metal structure, built at a cost of $1.7 billion—a giant dome to cover the destroyed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

Big enough to cover Notre Dame Cathedral, the New Safe Confinement is 354 feet high, weighs 39,600 tons and can withstand a tornado.

But the structure only has a lifespan of 100 years. The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl site will not be fully safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years.

"We will create a green corridor for tourists, Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature [has been] reborn after a huge man-made disaster," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the ceremony.

"We have to show this place to the world: To scientists, ecologists, historians [and] tourists."

Chernobyl nuclear disaster 1986
Heavy equipment surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear plant May 1, 1986 in Pripyat, USSR, after the reactor exploded. Laski Diffusion/Liaison