Chernobyl fires threaten release of radioactivity equivalent to major nuclear accident

The fires first reported in the Chernobyl region on April 26th (the anniversary of the 1986 accident) threaten a major release of radioactivity, warns Greenpeace.

If the fires spread to the heavily contaminated forests and land areas around the plant, the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere is certain. The amount of radioactivity potentially released could be the equivalent of a major nuclear accident.

Since the 1986 accident a massive amount of dangerous radioactive substances has been deposited on the forests including cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239. These forests, plants and soil are a major source of radioactivity, some of which was released from the fires of 2010.

Based on specialist satellite data, analysts at Greenpeace estimate that the fire has spread over an area covering 13,300 hectares, of which 4,100 are actually on fire. The fires have not yet reached the highest contaminated zones around the Chernobyl plant but are currently within 15-20 km of the site.

In a major analysis of the risks from fires around Chernobyl, scientists earlier this year concluded that worst case would be the release of radioactivity which could be the equivalent of a Level 6 nuclear accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The 1986 accident at Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi accident were level 7 INES events.

Radioactivity enters the atmosphere via the smoke plumes and is dispersed depending on wind direction, height and other weather factors. During previous forest fires, radioactivity has been dispersed as far as Turkey.

The international community is building a shelter around the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl, but it is impossible to build a sarcophagus over the vast contaminated forests in the region. Even after 29 years, the risks from Chernobyl-area radiation have not been controlled and could result in further dispersion of radioactivity over Europe.

As in Ukraine, vast amounts of radioactivity have been deposited in the forests in Japan around the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. Despite massive efforts by the Japanese authorities to decontaminate villages and farm land, the forest cannot be decontaminated and will remain a massive stock of radioactivity for a very long time. This presents a risk not only in the event of a forest fire, but also it will continue to leak radioactivity to populated areas, especially after winter melting or during heavy rains which can carry the radioactivity to neighbouring lands, rivers and lakes.

1 – Wildfires in Chernobyl-contaminated forests and risks to the population and the environment: A new nuclear disaster about to happen? Nikolaos Evangeliou, Yves Balkanski, Anne Cozic, Wei Min Hao, Anders Pape Møller, Environment International, 2014.

via Greenpeace news

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