Dozens of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant employees who were forced by Russian troops to stay at the facility for 600 hours were finally allowed to leave Sunday.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, welcomed the move, but warned that it was long overdue.
“[The plant employees] deserve our full respect and admiration for having worked in these extremely difficult circumstances,” Grossi stated. “They were there for far too long. I sincerely hope that remaining staff from this shift can also rotate soon.”
A Facebook post from the plant said that 64 people were sent home after they “heroically performed their professional duties and maintained the appropriate level of safety.” The workers included guards, technicians and others.
The employees who rotated out represented about half the staff at the site, per the IAEA. They were replaced Sunday by 46 Ukrainian “employee-volunteers,” the Facebook post said.
The workers had been been held hostage at the facility since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. For weeks, the IAEA had called for the plant employees to be allowed to rotate, pointing to serious safety concerns posed by exhausted personnel operating under stress.
Chernobyl was the site of the biggest nuclear power plant accident in history in 1986. While radioactive waste management facilities are located at the plant, its last reactor closed in 2000.