Russian Forces Have Fully Left Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, Ukraine Says

A Ukrainian state-owned nuclear company announced Thursday that Russian forces had left the Chernobyl plant after more than a month of occupying it.

In an online post, the company Energoatom said "there are now no outsiders on site," Reuters reported. The company also said the Russians have retreated from Slavutych, a town close to the plant where the workers live.

The nuclear plant, which was once the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, had been occupied since the Russians first invaded Ukraine on February 24. The workers present during the Russian takeover were taken hostage and forced to work for nearly a month straight, increasing fears of another nuclear disaster.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, said Thursday that it will send an "assistance and support mission" to Chernobyl. In a statement, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the agency is working closely with Ukrainian officials and that the mission will arrive "in the next few days."

The Reuters report added that Energoatom said there was "almost a riot" that had started to "brew among the soldiers" over radiation concerns, implying that could be the reason the soldiers left.

The seizure of Chernobyl and other nuclear plants in Ukraine caused concern for nuclear experts like Grossi, as shelling in some plants increased risk of fires and explosions. In Chernobyl, the lack of staff turnover was also worrying, as working so many days in a row could affect the workers' ability to make decisions.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed Russia was protecting the plants from terrorist attacks, though Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the possibility of ammunition exploding at the nuclear sites created a "risk of the repeat of a nuclear catastrophe" and called for Russia to leave the Chernobyl zone.

It also appeared that being in the Chernobyl area was harmful to the Russian troops, with Newsweek reporting earlier Thursday that Ukrainian official Yaroslav Yemelianenko said several Russian soldiers had to be hospitalized after digging through contaminated soil. However, the IAEA said it has not been able to confirm this.

The Russian forces also faced opposition from the Ukrainian workers, who played their country's national anthem every morning as an act of protest after soldiers took away their cell phones and forced them to work around-the-clock at gunpoint for 27 days straight.

That added up to almost 500 hours on the job before a shift change was finally allowed. In its statement, the IAEA added that there have been no reports of another staff rotation in the past 10 to 11 days.

"It is high time to stop an armed conflict from putting nuclear facilities at severe risk, potentially endangering the safety of people and the environment in Ukraine and beyond," Grossi said in a separate IAEA statement. "Words must mean something—it is time for action."

Newsweek reached out to Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs but did not hear back in time for publication.

Update 03/31/22 6:15 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information and background.

Ukraine Says Russia Left Chernobyl Zone
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have left the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Above, burnt trees are seen in the Chernobyl zone close to the Ukraine-Belarus border crossing on February 13 in Vilcha, Ukraine. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images