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Wildfires in the area around Chernobyl raise fears of radioactive smoke


By Andrew E. Kramer


Wildfires have broken out in the radioactive forest that surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear plant, an area controlled by the Russian army, Ukrainian media reported Tuesday, raising worries that radiation could spread widely in the smoke if the fires burn unchecked.


Forest fires are common in the spring and summer in the abandoned zone around the Chernobyl plant, where radiation levels are considerably lower than they were immediately after the 1986 accident but still pose risks.


Typically, Ukraine sends dozens of firetrucks and hundreds of firefighters into the area to extinguish blazes as quickly as possible. But as this year’s fire season begins, the Russian military is occupying the Chernobyl zone, having used the site to advance troops and tanks from Belarus toward the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.


The fiercest combat is about 50 miles south of the irradiated zone, in outlying towns around Kyiv. Any firefighting effort would have to come from Russia or Belarus unless Ukrainian firefighters are permitted to cross the front line, an unlikely proposition.


Seven small fires are burning in the forest, Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet, reported, citing a statement issued by parliament. It said the source of the fires was most likely artillery shelling or arson. There was no way to independently confirm the report.


Usually, fires are started this time of year by lightning, by campfires or by farmers burning fields before the spring planting in areas near the zone. The statement said the fires had burned through an area estimated to be from 175 acres to 500 acres.


In past years, even with free access for firefighters to the Chernobyl zone, spring fires have quickly spread beyond control. A major fire in early April 2020 burned more than 8,600 acres before it was contained, despite more than 100 firetrucks being dispatched to the area.


Now, even rotating key Ukrainian personnel who manage the highly radioactive waste at the site has become entangled in the war. The crew at the site on the day of the invasion has been working under Russian military command for weeks. Over the weekend, 64 Ukrainian nuclear workers and other site personnel left the Chernobyl zone and were replaced by 46 Ukrainian nuclear sector employees who volunteered to cross the front to maintain the plant.


One reactor was destroyed in the 1986 accident, and the other three are decommissioned. But nuclear waste at the site requires continual management. Some used fuel is held in pools, for example, and cannot be allowed to overheat.


Radioactive smoke from wildfires in the area has been a persistent threat. Over the three decades since the accident, radiation has settled into the soil, posing little risk if left undisturbed. But the roots of moss, trees and other vegetation have absorbed some radiation, bringing it to the surface and spreading radioactive particles in smoke when it burns.


The main risk from the fires comes from inhaling, via the smoke, small radioactive particles thrown years ago from the open core of the destroyed Chernobyl reactor.


During the 2020 wildfires, increased levels of radioactive cesium were detected in some countries, including Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands. But an analysis found that in the Netherlands and Belgium, not all of the cesium came from the fires.

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