Wildfires to create second wave of radiation poisoning from Chernobyl

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Norwegian scientists say global warming will lead to more wildfires in the forests surrounding the site of the 1986 nuclear accident, leaving Europeans exposed to radioactive elements still present in the exclusion zone around the plant.

“A large amount of Caesium-137 still remains in the Chernobyl forests, which could be remobilized along with a large number of other dangerous, long-lived, refractory radionuclides. We predict that an expanding flammable area associated with climate change will lead to a high risk of radioactive contamination with characteristic fire peaks in the future,” said the abstract of a study published in Ecological Monographs magazine by the respected Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

The US Environmental Protection Agency describes Caesium-137 as a “highly radioactive” material that “increases the risk of cancer” and can cause death through severe exposure.

Of the 85 petabecquerels (a measure of radioactivity) released following the accident at the plant, between two and eight still remain in the soil.

The Norwegian team studied satellite images of the patterns of large-scale fires that originated in the 4800 sq. km exclusion zone – located on either side of Ukraine’s border with Belarus – in 2002, 2008, and 2010. The impacts of those fires, which spewed nearly a tenth as much radiation as the original fallout, were detected as far away as Scandinavia, Turkey, and Italy.

The scientists then used projections from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which says the area will become even drier and more prone to fires – to make future predictions of even more severe radiation clouds spreading across the continent.

Furthermore, the scientists found that organic debris in the forest – key fuel for any potential fire – has been building up at twice the rate since 1986, as dead leaves in the area appear to decay at half the pace, due to radiation inhibiting natural biological processes.

The situation is made worse by the surprisingly slow decay of Caesium-137 itself. In lab conditions, its half-life is 30 years, meaning that by next year, it should be half as potent as at the time of the contamination. But in the dense vegetation that has sprung up in the exclusion zone, the element is cycled continuously between the soil and the leaves of the trees above.

The study, which notes that “current fire-fighting infrastructure in the region is inadequate due to understaffing and lack of funding,” predicts that the most potent combination of Caesium concentrations and wildfires will strike between 2023 and 2036, and realistic dangers will remain until 2060.

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