Chernobyl wildfires burning close to nuclear reactor

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The Chernobyl wildfires have been ravaging parts of the exclusion zone for over a week. Now there are concerns the blaze is heading dangerously close to its nuclear reactor.

Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. 34 years later, Chernobyl radioactivity is still circulating. The long-lived radionuclides released by the accident mean the disaster continues decades on.

Start of the fires

The Chernobyl wildfires started on April 3rd, due to abnormally hot, dry and windy weather. They are now the biggest fires ever recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. What is one of the largest wildlife areas in Europe will take years to recover.

Satellite images of wildfires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, taken 18 April 2020 © Greenpeace Global Mapping Hub Source: NASA Worldview, OpenStreetMap

Satellite images show that an estimated 57 000 hectares of the Cherbobyl exclusion zone has burned so far. That is 22% of the total area of the exclusion zone. 

Three weeks after the start of the fires, at least three of the largest fires continue burning. One of them is located close to the site of the old nuclear power plant. Which is only 4 kilometers away from the sarcophagus. Hundreds of ill-equipped firefighters and foresters are currently trying to get the fires in Northern Ukraine under control. 

The wind has carried some of the smoke over more populated areas. On the 16th of April, plumes of smoke caused smog in Kyiv, 250 kilometers away. Although they did not exceed norms, higher levels of radioactivity than usual were detected. The smoke and ash have also crossed borders. The Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority registered a small increase of caesium-137 concentrations in the air in Norway.

The spreading of radioactive substance

Increased activity of Caesium-137 and other radionuclides in the air can lead to a rise in levels of cancer. Whoever can smell the fire could also inhale these radioactive substances. 

So yes, potentially dangerous radionuclides are traveling with the fire haze. This is due to the fact that since 1986, the forests have accumulated radioactivity. They have mostly concentrated in the wood and upper soil layers. This is why village dwellers living nearby the contaminated are deprived of their right to use the forest for the next 300 years.

35 years later, the “exclusion zone” surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is still heavily contaminated; with caesium-137; strontium-90; americium-241; plutonium-238 and plutonium-239. Plutonium particles are the most toxic ones. They are estimated to be around 250 times more harmful than caesium-137. 

CHernobyl Wildfires. © Oksana Parafeniuk / Greenpeace
A forest fire burns near Kyiv, Ukraine, 60 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. © Oksana Parafeniuk / Greenpeace

How the fire spreads the radioactive particles

Fire releases these particles into the air where wind can transport them over long distances. Eventually expanding the boundaries of radioactive contamination. There is currently no data on how much nuclear material has been brought into the atmosphere because of these fires. Therefore we don’t know how far they have traveled. As the particles are heavy, it’s possible that most of the radionuclides will settle nearby the exclusion zone.

We know from previous (smaller) fires that happened in the area in 2015 that scientists found a release of; 10.9 TBq caesium-137; 1.5 TBq of strontium-90; 7.8 GBq of plutonium-238 ; 6.3 GBq of plutonium-239; 9.4 GBq of plutonium-239 and 29.7 GBq americium-241. It is clear that the numbers will be higher this year. 

Firefighters and locals are exposed to risks from both smoke inhalation and radiation. In the short term, cities like Kyiv are exposed to the health impact of inhaling smoke. In the longer term, they risk internal irradiation through contaminated berries, mushrooms, and milk bought on the local markets. No-one is immune from radioactive products getting into their homes.

The consequences of the Chernobyl wildfires

The consequences of Chernobyl wildfires are still here. People are still at risk; exposed and fighting on the frontlines. Forest fires in contaminated areas are a big problem for Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Since according to data 5 million people still live in the contaminated areas. These fires happen almost every year. 

Chernobyl Wildfires. Firefighters in the Radioactive Contaminated Bryansk Region. © Vladislav Zalevskiy / Greenpeace
Every spring, fires start in the forests that are still heavily contaminated with radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Greenpeace firefighters work hard to stop the spreading of these fires. © Vladislav Zalevskiy / Greenpeace

The Greenpeace Russia firefighting squad has helped several times to extinguish the fires on contaminated territories. This year, our firefighters have not been able to go on site to help due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

These forest fires are burdening an emergency ministry already in the midst of a health crisis. This proves that other emergencies can be exacerbated by nuclear-related incidents, which is a situation that we have little or no control over. 

Nuclear-related risks by themselves are exacerbated by the lack of transparency. At the beginning of the fires, the first official accounts minimized the areas on fire by about 600 times. Secrecy was one of the reasons why the Chernobyl disaster was so severe in 1986. It has been confirmed that even the director of the Chernobyl power plant was not informed of the disaster at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in 1975. That would have given clues to what happened in reactor 4. 

Chernobyl will continue to pose a threat for many generations to come. 

Source: Greenpeace (http://www.greenpeace.org)

Written by Rashid Alimov 23 April 2020 from Greenpeace

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