The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forest fires near Russian-held Chernobyl nuclear plant raise radiation fears, Ukraine says

A visitor stands in front of a souvenir booth next to the Dytyatky control point at an entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone on Dec. 8, 2020. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Forest fires have broken out around the Chernobyl nuclear site, Ukraine’s parliament said Monday, raising fears that radiation could spread from the defunct facility.

At least seven fires within the closed-down plant’s exclusion zone were observed on satellite imagery from the European Space Agency, the parliament said in a statement. The lawmakers blamed the blazes on Russian forces that captured the site in February.

U.S. experts, using NASA satellite imagery, spotted three recent fires in the area. One remains isolated on an island along the Pripyat River, while another has been burning for about a week 20 miles to the west of the site.

Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, said in an email that the fire that had been burning for several days was “considerably larger” and was probably being fed by “dead organic matter” stemming from previous fires in these forests and grasslands. Based on time-lapse satellite imagery, however, Mousseau said, “It appears that this fire has decreased in size considerably over the past week.”

Doug Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in an email that a third, smaller new fire was detected Tuesday that “could continue to spread into forests along the southern extent of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.”

“Smoke from all three fires can be seen spreading south from the Chernobyl region” in the NASA satellite imagery collected Tuesday, he added.

Ukrainian officials and firefighters could not carry out their usual functions in the area to extinguish the fires because of Russian control of the plant, the parliamentary update added. It also warned that fires within “a 10-kilometer radius [6.2 miles] of significant radioactive waste and contamination could pose a “particular danger.”

Nuclear energy experts said the fires could also threaten critical electricity transmission lines, which were recently repaired. “The facilities themselves’ greatest vulnerability is a loss of power,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

What’s at risk in Chernobyl

Forest fires have occurred before near the defunct power plant, the scene of a 1986 catastrophe. Large quantities of radioactive material contaminated the land around the Chernobyl nuclear site after the disaster, and a nearby city was evacuated. Today, an “exclusion zone,” where radioactive contamination is highest, covers about 1,000 square miles around the site.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear company, said Monday that Russia’s seizure of the area meant crews were no longer able to monitor radiation levels there. It said the forest firefighting service was not able to work under Russian control.

“There is no data on the current state of radiation pollution of the exclusion zone’s environment, which makes it impossible to adequately respond to threats,” Energoatom said, according to Reuters. “Radiation levels in the exclusion zone and beyond, including not only Ukraine, but also other countries, could significantly worsen.”

Ukrainian Natural Resources Minister Ruslan Strelets said Tuesday, however, that radiation levels in the Chernobyl area are within the norms, according to the AP.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has been trying in vain to negotiate “a framework” that would allow IAEA experts into all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities “to help maintain safety and security of the sites.”

Scientists say seasonal forest fires, which typically occur in spring and summer, can release radiation trapped in the upper layers of soil around the nuclear site. Lyman said that tree roots have also taken up radioactive cesium, which could “get liberated in a plume of smoke from the fires.”

Research from the Center for Security Studies published last year found that the smoke from forest fires can carry radioactive material, presenting a “cause for international concern.”

“Such wildfires produce uncontainable, airborne, and hazardous smoke, which potentially carries radioactive material,” the research found. “Given the half-lives of certain radioisotopes, this problem will not disappear in the lifetimes of all living generations,” it added.

With the onset of climate change, “nuclear wildfires present a pressing yet little discussed problem” that requires urgent attention, the study said.

“Fires are more and more frequent because of drier weather,” said Kate Brown, professor in the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The dry weather was “starkly noticeable” over the past decade, she added.

President Biden confirmed for the first time Russia’s use of a hypersonic missile in its invasion of Ukraine at a Business Roundtable event on March 21. (Video: The White House)

On Monday the U.N. nuclear watchdog said that a “long-delayed” rotation of technical staff at the Chernobyl plant site has been completed, allowing staff to return home for the first time since Russian forces occupied the site last month.

Seizing the Chernobyl plant was among Moscow’s first strategic gains, after the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that Russian forces had taken control of the area near the site as part of Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine in February, sparking global alarm. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, Europe’s largest, has also been seized by Russian forces.

What you need to know about hypersonic missiles, which Biden says Russia used against Ukraine

The Chernobyl zone, one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world, has remained closed since 1986, although a small number of people still live in the area — mostly elderly Ukrainians who refused to evacuate or who returned after the evacuation of the area.

The building containing the exploded reactor from 1986 was covered in 2017 with an enormous shield meant to contain radiation still emanating from the plant. Robots inside the plant work to dismantle the destroyed reactor and gather up radioactive waste. It is expected to take until 2064 to finish safely dismantling the reactors.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Tuesday in a call with reporters that there are no immediate safety risks posed by Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, which the international community continues to monitor.

“It is really important to note that despite Russia’s reckless military activity, there has been no near-term risk to public safety involving Ukraine’s nuclear facilities,” Granholm said. “The containment structures in the nuclear power plants are really very robust. They’re built to withstand accidents, as well as external assaults. And we continue obviously to monitor, along with the IAEA, everything that is happening.”

Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.