In 1986, a major disaster resulted in an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) that killed 30 people and dosed the area around the plant with deadly radiation. One area received so much radiation that its trees turned red, leading people to call it the Red Forest.
For decades, Ukraine has operated the Chernobyl site in a safe manner, sealing off the former plant’s reactor with a giant cover and ensuring that further radiation leaks were minimized. At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, though, Russian troops quickly captured and controlled the highly-radioactive site.
For the invaders, that’s when the trouble reportedly started.
Although the plant’s Ukrainian operators were captured by Russian forces and continued to run the plant, Russian troops reportedly camped and dug trenches in the Red Forest and other highly toxic areas around Chernobyl. They also reportedly drove tanks around the area, kicking up clouds of radioactive topsoil. It now appears that those Russian troops may have inadvertently poisoned themselves with the deadly radiation present at the Chernobyl site.
The troops may have had no idea what they were doing. While Chernobyl is well known in the West, Russia has actively suppressed information about the accident because it reflects poorly on the country’s history. Due to Russia’s disinformation, the Russian invaders may have had no idea what Chernobyl was.
That lack of knowledge may well prove deadly, and in a uniquely bizarre way. Russia formally handed the site back to Ukraine last week. Reports suggest that their withdrawal may be related to several troops coming down with symptoms of radiation poisoning. Unconfirmed reports suggest that buses of troops may have arrived at a hospital in Belarus, and at least one soldier is reported to have died from radiation sickness.
If it’s true that Russian troops exposed themselves to deadly radiation while occupying Chernobyl, the impacts could unfold over weeks, years, or even decades. The CDC says that initial symptoms of radiation poisoning are often mild, and include things like nausea and lack of appetite.
Cruelly, the disease then often enters a latent stage. The CDC says that “In this stage, the patient looks and feels generally healthy for a few hours or even up to a few weeks.” Many people probably assume they’ve escaped harm.
In reality, though, they’re likely often a dead man walking. After the latent stage, the disease suddenly manifests in full, with symptoms like hemorrhaging, dehydration, coma and death. Survival rates depend on how much radiation a person received. Some people survive radiation poisoning, but many do not.
Based on the timing of their occupation, many Russian troops who occupied Chernobyl may be in the latent stage of their disease at the moment, if they were indeed exposed to deadly radiation. Over the next several days or weeks, they would likely begin to experience full symptoms of the disease, and death is a very real possibility. Even if they escape the acute phase of the disease, radiation exposure can lead to a variety of cancers years or decades later.
Although more than 15,000 Russian troops have reportedly died in the conflict so far, these Chernobyl casualties would be unique. The troops would perish not from Ukrainian fire, but from an event that Russia’s predecessor the USSR perpetuated over 30 years ago—and that their own country actively covered up.
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