Chernobyl wildfires risk ‘catastrophic’ radiation release across vast swathes of Europe

Russia could use Chernobyl to 'blackmail' Europe says expert

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On April 26, 1986, the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown following a power supply issue during a steam turbine safety test. Today, the trees and soils within the 1,000 square mile exclusion zone around the atomic facility still contain significant concentrations of radioactive material. Experts fear that this may be escaping thanks to the wildfires that Ukrainian officials have said are “burning unchecked” in the now Russian-controlled area following either shelling or arson by Vladimir Putin’s forces. In fact, according to forest ecosystem scientist Dr William Keeton of the University of Vermont, the conflagrations could result in a “potentially dangerous — even catastrophic — release of radiation into the atmosphere.”

There are precedents for the present forest fires around Ukraine — with serious outbreaks have occurred in the area in 2002, 2008, 2010 and most recently in 2020.

Back in 2015, chemist Dr Nikolaos Evangeliou of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and his colleagues conducted a study into the first three of these fires.

Their analysis combined both satellite images of the blazes and measurements of the deposition of the radioactive isotope caesium-137 (¹³⁷Cs) with models of both fires and the air movements that they generate.

The three fires, the researchers wrote, “resulted in the displacement of ¹³⁷Cs to the south”.

Radioactive caesium-bearing smoke from the conflagrations ended up being distributed mainly over eastern Europe, but was also detected as far south as Turkey and as west as Italy and Scandinavia.

In the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, some 60 miles south of Chernobyl, the population would have received an average dose of around 10 microsieverts (mSv) of radiation — one percent of the recommended maximum yearly exposure.

For comparison, a single chest X-ray exposes hospital patients to around 0.1 mSv, while airline crews are estimated to receive around 2–5 mSv of cosmic rays during flights annually.

Paper co-author and biology Professor Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina said that a dose of 10 MsV is “very small”.

However, he also cautioned that this figure does not factor in other radioactive isotopes that might be released — like those of americium, plutonium and strontium — nor does it account for the potential for individuals to receive larger doses as a result of a concentration of these metals with food.

As long-lived radioactive elements can both persist and accumulate with the body, some experts cleave to the idea that any dose at all is bad news.

For Professor Mousseau, these fires “serve as a warning of where these contaminants can go. Should there be a larger fire, quite a bit more could end up on populated areas.”

And unlike with the present fires — which are said to be burning unchecked — those in 2010 and 2020 were put out, Dr Keeton said, “just before reaching or burning extensively in the Chernobyl forests”.

According to Dr Evangeliou and colleagues, “The cumulative amount of ¹³⁷Cs re-deposited over Europe [by the three fires they studied] was equivalent to eight percent [0.5 PBq] of that deposited following the initial Chernobyl disaster.

“However, a large amount of ¹³⁷Cs still remains in these forests, which could be remobilized along with a large number of other dangerous, long-lived, refractory radionuclides.”

Refractory materials are those that are resistant to decomposition by heat, pressure, or chemical attack — and tend to retain their form and strength under extreme temperatures.

Specifically, the team estimated that of the 85 petabecquerels (PBq) of radioactive caesium released during the 1986 meltdown, some 2–8 PBq may still reside in the upper layers of soil within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

It should be noted that there is a chance that these figures are underestimates — with some experts, including radioactivity consultant and former head of the Government’s radiation risk committee Ian Fairlie, havd warned that the half-life of caesium-137 may be longer than estimated in Dr Evangeliou and his colleagues’ calculations.

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For Professor Mousseau, these fires “serve as a warning of where these contaminants can go. Should there be a larger fire, quite a bit more could end up on populated areas.”

And unlike with the present fires — which are said to be burning unchecked — those in 2010 and 2020 were put out, Dr Keeton said, “just before reaching or burning extensively in the Chernobyl forests”.

According to Dr Evangeliou and colleagues, “The cumulative amount of ¹³⁷Cs re-deposited over Europe [by the three fires they studied] was equivalent to eight percent [0.5 PBq] of that deposited following the initial Chernobyl disaster.

“However, a large amount of ¹³⁷Cs still remains in these forests, which could be remobilized along with a large number of other dangerous, long-lived, refractory radionuclides.”

Refractory materials are those that are resistant to decomposition by heat, pressure, or chemical attack — and tend to retain their form and strength under extreme temperatures.

Specifically, the team estimated that of the 85 petabecquerels (PBq) of radioactive caesium released during the 1986 meltdown, some 2–8 PBq may still reside in the upper layers of soil within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

It should be noted that there is a chance that these figures are underestimates — with some experts, including radioactivity consultant and former head of the Government’s radiation risk committee Ian Fairlie, havd warned that the half-life of caesium-137 may be longer than estimated in Dr Evangeliou and his colleagues’ calculations.

Part of the problem with the forests around Chernobly, Dr Evangeliou told the New Scientist, is that the radioactive caesium deposits simply aren’t being whittled down by erosion and the removal of vegetation in the way that they would in other ecosystems.

Instead, the expert said, the abandoned woodlands see a cycle in which “trees pick up the radioactive ions, then dead leaves return it to the soil.”

The forests around Chernobyl are coniferous — mainly Scots pine trees — making them particularly prone to catching ablaze.

Furthermore, the radiation itself — likely as a result of its impact on detritivorous insects and microorganisms that break down leaf litter and the like — appears to significantly slow the decomposition of the dead vegetation that can help fuel fires.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Ecological Monographs.

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