Forest Fires at Chernobyl Could Spawn Clouds of Radioactive Ash

By Sarah Zhang on at

In the years since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the exclusion zone morphed has into an improbable nature reserve—untamed and untouched and, well, still radioactive. A new study warns that forest fires could spread radioactive material from the site, but how dangerous the ash would be is unknown.

The exclusion zone extends 30 kilometres, or 19 miles, in all directions around Chernobyl. And it’s been largely uninhabited since the disaster in 1986, save a few hundred people who refused to leave. As the New York Times notes, trees and brush have since grown to cover 70 per cent of the zone. Radioactive materials such as caesium and strontium still lurk in the soil and plants, which could be released again in a forest fire.

A new study published in Ecological Monographs notes that three forest fires since 2002 have redeposited 8 per cent of the caesium-137 from the original disaster. “We’ve invested billions to put a new cover over the old reactor building,” the study’s co-author Timothy Mousseau said to the Times. “But forest fires have the ability to remobilise radioactive material from the original event.”

As the forest grows thicker and temperatures rise with climate change, fires could become even even bigger hazards in the future. It’s still unclear whether the levels of radioactive material released would actually be dangerous for human health, but it illustrates yet again how the Chernobyl disaster could live on in unexpected ways. [New York Times, Ecological Monographs]

Top: A photo of the destroyed Chernobyl reactor in 1998. AP Photo/Efrem Lukstaky