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The Risks of Fire Around Chernobyl

Radioactive forest litter that has accumulated for the past 28 years could fuel massive blazes in the future

A radioactive forest in Chernobyl. (Photo: Caroline Penn/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

For 28 years now, the forest in the Exclusion Zone—the 19-mile radius around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant—has been piling up dead wood and leaf litter: decomposition in the irradiated zone seems to work at a much slower pace. And all of that leaf litter, from plants and trees that have taken up radiation from the contaminated soil, makes for a massive pile of kindling for a future wildfire, new research published in the journal Environment International shows.

The entire Exclusion Zone is at risk of catching fire, the authors warn, which could redistribute radiation across Europe and Russia.

The meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 released more than 10 EBq (1018 Becquerels) of radiation. Approximately one-fifth of that radiation settled around the power plant; the rest was picked up by the wind and dispersed across Europe and beyond.

In 2010, the authors of the new study point out, more than 54 fires—some of them purposefully started by people—broke out in the Exclusion Zone, and more than 300 others burned nearby.

To under the impacts of a major fire in the Exclusion Zone, the team built a computer model of Chernobyl’s potential fire risk based on the data from the real-world fires from 2010. Another computer model calculated health risk to humans and animals. 

The researchers ran several possible scenarios: fires that consume 10, 50 and 100 percent of the area. Depending on the intensity of the fire, they found that from 20 to 240 people would likely develop cancer, of which 10 to 170 cases may be fatal—figures comparable to those projected for Fukushima.

While many uncertainties exist in the models, perfectly predicting future disasters wasn’t the authors’ intention. Their paper, instead, serves as a warning. As they write: “We aim to sensitize the scientific community and the European authorities for the foreseen risks from radioactivity redistribution over Europe.” 

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