In what might have been a case of arson, 1.5 square miles of land was set ablaze around the ruined Chernobyl reactor, which exploded and released massive amounts of radionuclides in 1986. It was the worst fire in the area in 20 years and marks the 29th anniversary of the disaster almost to the day it began (April 26).
Fires can release and redistribute man-made radioactivity in the environment, contaminating areas that were not contaminated before, or making areas of low contamination higher. Since deposition of radioactive contamination around Chernobyl was spotty initially, Ukrainian officials cannot be sure this fire hit heavily contaminated areas although they claim no change in background levels was detected. This claim is difficult to believe because radioactivity levels after past fires have been six to 12 times higher than before the fires began.
This most recent fire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone has highlighted some uncomfortable truths: climate change could cause declining precipitation which could, in turn, cause more wildfires in the already fire prone Chernobyl landscape. Not only could fire remobilized nuclides like cesium, strontium and plutonium be from around the Chernobyl reactor itself, but fires throughout Europe and Eurasia could also release radiation that had been deposited hundreds of miles from the ruined reactor.
Dr. Mousseau and colleagues have created a computer model that demonstrates “wildfires that broke out in the exclusion zone in 2002, 2008 and 2010 have cumulatively redistributed an estimated 8 percent of the original amount of cesium-137 released in the 1986 disaster.”
In fact, forest fires have been a concern (see Stalked by Forest Fires section) for radioactively contaminated ecosystems for a long time and will also be a concern for the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster. Adding to the likelihood of recontamination by fire, is the lack of plant decay processes in contaminated areas around Chernobyl, which leaves drying plant matter as tinder for any spark. Proof yet again, that nuclear disasters are never-ending.
RT International invited Beyond Nuclear on to discuss the radioactive wildfires burning in the Chernobyl region.