Radiation Around Chernobyl Is 16 Times Higher Than Normal After Forest Fires

Radiation Around Chernobyl Is 16 Times Higher Than Normal After Forest Fires
A wildfire near the village of Volodymyrivka, in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Image: Yaroslav Yemelianenko/AP)

Fighting forest fires inside Chernobyl’s dreaded exclusion zone sounds awful, but that’s exactly what nearly 150 emergency responders had to contend with this past weekend, as a pair of blazes broke out near the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

As CNN reports, the blaze began Saturday inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, which encompasses an area measuring 2,600 square kilometres. The blazes are burning near the village of Volodymyrivka, which is inside the exclusion zone, reports the Associated Press via CTV News.

“There is bad news,” declared Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s ecological inspection service, in a Facebook post written on Sunday, April 4. “Radiation is above normal in the centre of the fire.”

Within the area of the blaze, radiation levels reached 2.3 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h), according to Firsov. Normally, the background radiation in the area is 0.14 μSv/h, he added. Sieverts measure the amount of energy, specifically ionizing radiation, that can be absorbed by human tissue. The readings were 16 times higher than normal and five times higher than the maximum allowable amount of background radiation per Ukrainian guidelines, CNN reported.

Around 116,000 Soviet citizens fled the region after the plant exploded on April 26, 1986, followed by another 220,000 who were resettled. Access to the Exclusion Zone remains restricted to prevent the spread of contaminated materials and to protect human health. Nature has returned to much of the area, and forest fires are now common near the decommissioned nuclear power plant.

Firsov described the situation as “difficult,” with emergency responders having to contend with two different blazes. The larger of the two fires measures 50 acres (20 hectares) in size, requiring the efforts of 124 firefighters and 42 water drops, while the smaller fire is 12 acres (5 hectares) in size, reports CNN. As of this morning, fire crews are still attending to the two blazes.

A statement put out by Ukraine’s Specialists of the Emergency Preparedness and Radiation Monitoring Department said the capital city of Kiev, which is located around 100 kilometres from Chernobyl, and its suburbs have not been affected by the fires.

“I want to calm you down,” wrote Firsov in a follow-up Facebook post, telling residents they shouldn’t be afraid to open their windows and air-out their homes during the quarantine, in reference to the ongoing covid-19 global pandemic.

Firsov blamed the fires on human activity, saying stricter penalties are needed to stop these “barbaric” acts, in which grasses are deliberately set alight. Otherwise, “large-scale fires will continue to happen every fall and spring,” he warned.