The UN atomic watchdog is investigating Ukrainian claims that Russian soldiers occupying Chernobyl nuclear power station left after receiving high doses of radiation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it could not confirm the claims by Ukrainian state power company Energoatom and was seeking an independent assessment.
Energoatom said the Russians dug trenches in the forest inside the exclusion zone at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and that the troops “panicked at the first sign of illness” which “showed up very quickly” and began preparing to leave.
The Ukrainian deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, also made the claim that Russian troops who dug trenches in the forest were exposed to radiation, but it has not been independently verified.
Some reports have suggested the soldiers are being sent to a special medical facility in Belarus after driving tanks through the “dead zone” around the nuclear plant, kicking up radioactive dust.
Russian forces also retreated from the nearby town of Slavutych, where workers at Chernobyl live, Energoatom said.
The IAEA said it was preparing to send its first “assistance and support mission” to Chernobyl in northern Ukraine in the next few days.
Though Russian soldiers seized control of Chernobyl soon after the 24 February invasion, the plant’s Ukrainian staff continued to oversee the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and supervise the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident.
In a separate post, Energoatom said the Russian side had formally agreed to hand back to Ukraine the responsibility for protecting Chernobyl. It shared the scan of a document signed by people it identified as a senior staff member at Chernobyl and the Russian military official assigned to guarding Chernobyl. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the document.
Ukraine has repeatedly expressed safety concerns about Chernobyl and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops, whose presence prevented the rotation of personnel for a time.
Asked to comment on the accounts from Chernobyl staff, Russia’s defence ministry did not respond.