In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, creating what many considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said that the explosion happened during a routine maintenance check. The operators turned off vital control systems, which was against the safety regulations, to test the electrical systems. As a result, the reactors reached dangerous, unstable, and low-power levels. The nuclear core explosion spewed radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The authorities began evacuating people from the area around Chernobyl within 36 hours of the accident. According to an article by National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, the Soviet Union evacuated 335,000 people. The explosion killed 28 people and injured more than 100. The UNSCEAR reported that more than 6,000 children and adults developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radiation. The complete consequences of the accident remain highly debated and under study.
Reports show that an estimated 13% to 30% of about 190 metric tons of uranium dioxide fuel and fission products have escaped into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the situation was poorly handled. Soviet and western scientists reported that Belarus, one of the countries affected, received about 60% of the contamination. A large area in the Russian Federation south of Bryansk was also contaminated.
The meltdown has created a fear of nuclear energy that still exists today. As the World Nuclear Association said, "The Chernobyl accident was serious and has resulted in long-term psychological and socio-economic impacts for the people affected.” Due to high levels of radiation, tens of thousands of hectares of forests have experienced massive radioactive contamination. Most of them were killed. The region was later named the “Red Forest” because the dead trees turned a bright ginger color. The trees were eventually bulldozed and buried in trenches.
Decades after the explosion, there are still several hot spots in Chernobyl which have dangerous radiation. People who will be exposed to this will slowly die. Usually, these hot spots are found in cracks in and around Pripyat where the radioactive particles accumulated. Several areas of the red forests where a lot of the main fallout happened are also dangerous to people.
The Chernobyl Wildfires
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains heavily contaminated until now, and will be for many years to come. The Ukrainian government has launched several efforts to maintain its normal radiation levels. However, the increasing wildfires in the forest near the zone are making things worse.
Recently, the Suomi NPP satellite, a joint project of NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), captured a photo of a forest burning near the old Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The fire started near the village of Volodymyrivka on April 4, which eventually spread to cover more than 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres). Even worse, it looks like the fire was started deliberately. Two separate blazes were also reported in the past weeks.
Previous reports from authorities said that the danger in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is minimal. According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, the average radiation level in the zone is about a quarter as harmful to human health as it was in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and fire. Unfortunately, Ukrainian officials reported a spike in radiation levels due to the forest fires. Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine's ecological inspection service, showed a Geiger counter near the fire reading 2.3 microsieverts per hour, a spike from the typical 0.14 μSv/h.
Officials from the Exclusion Zone Management Agency said the fires have burned through more than 8,600 acres over the past week. With this range, they are trying their best to protect critical infrastructure in the Chernobyl zone. This includes the plant itself and the so-called “graves,” or parking lots of abandoned, highly contaminated trucks and tracked vehicles that were left from the original disaster. “We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” Kateryna Pavlova, the acting head of the agency, said.
The Cause and Impact of the Forest Fire
Police recently arrested a 27-year-old man from the area who they believed caused the blaze. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the man reportedly told police he had set grass and rubbish on fire in three places “for fun.” The man added that after he had lit the fires, the wind had picked up and he had been unable to extinguish them. But, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Several fires caused by humans were reported throughout the years.
"The problem of setting fires to grass by careless citizens in spring and autumn has long been a very acute problem for us. Every year we see the same picture — fields, reeds, forests burn in all regions,” Firsov said.
According to Science Alert, a leading scientific publisher dedicated to publishing peer-reviewed significant research work, forest fires near Chernobyl are also caused by rising temperatures due to climate change. Experts are actively warning about the dangers of forest fires around Chernobyl, while officials are calling for stronger restrictions for accessing the area and harsher fines for those who attempt arson.
The spike in the radiation levels is not good news. The Chernobyl explosion caused increased cases of cancer among children by more than 90%. The explosion caused two immediate deaths and 29 deaths from acute radiation sickness three months after the incident. About 134 out of 237 people showed symptoms of acute radiation syndrome as well. It has been claimed that a total of 50 people died of acute radiation syndrome and that 4,000 may die in the future of radiation-related causes.
During the 25 years after the explosion, approximately 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer were registered in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The World Health Organization reported that over 5,000 cancer deaths were related to the Chernobyl accident. Other consequences include genetic damage to people born after the disaster.
Olena Miskun, an air pollution expert with Ecodiya, an environmental advocacy group, said that the main risk from the fires comes from inhaling small radioactive particles thrown years ago from the open core of the Chernobyl reactor. “Wind can raise hot particles in the air together with the ash and blow it toward populated areas,” she said.