27 Years Later, Radiation Still Hides Out in Chernobyl’s Trees (Fukushima’s Too)

Trapped in the trees, radiation from Chernobyl could be re-released with a forest fire

Timm Suess

The April 26, 1986, meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant scattered radioactive material across 58,000 square miles of eastern Europe. In a ring 18 miles from the destroyed plant, authorities set up the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—a place where no one is supposed to live (though of course some do.) Scientific American has the story of how, though the disaster took place decades ago, radiation persists in a huge area around the defunct power plant—ready to be re-released to the environment.

In the forests around Chernobyl, the trees have absorbed some of the radioactive fall-out. Washed from the air by the rain, radionuclides are taken up by trees and stored for long periods. The worry, says Scientific American, is that a forest fire could loose this radiation back to the environment.

For almost three decades the forests around the shuttered nuclear power plant have been absorbing contamination left from the 1986 reactor explosion. Now climate change and lack of management present a troubling predicament: If these forests burn, strontium 90, cesium 137, plutonium 238 and other radioactive elements would be released, according to an analysis of the human health impacts of wildfire in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone conducted by scientists in Germany, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States.

A recent study showed that the same is true for the forests around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. There, trees took up radioactive cesium and iodine, storing them in the tree tops. That study found that the “half-life” of the radiation in the trees is around two years, meaning that every two years the concentration of radiation would drop by half.

So, trees can give radiation a lot of staying power in the area. But the real question is, how worrisome would such a release be?

According to a recent report from the World Health Organization, even the initial dispersal of radiation by Fukushima is unlikely to cause much of a problem. SciAm’s story says that if Chernobyl’s forests burned there could be an increase in the cancer risk for a small percentage of people living downwind. That being said, the radiated trees would make an already-dangerous job even more risky for firefighters combating the blaze.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Health Effects of Fukushima’s Radiation Weren’t So Bad
How The Fukushima Exclusion Zone Shows Us What Comes After The Anthropocene

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