Radiation near Chernobyl spikes as firefighters battle area wildfires

2016_Chernobyl-NB-3 The road barrier at the checkpoint into the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Photo: Nils Bøhmer

Radiation levels near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident have spiked as firefighters battles to contain two forest blazes in the area.

The two fires erupted Saturday in the uninhabited exclusion zone around Chernobyl, which was sealed off after the 1986 explosion at the plant, Ukraine’s emergency services reported.

Firefighters said they have managed to localize one of the fires in an area of about five hectares, but the second one continued burning, covering about 20 hectares. They said they were using aircraft to extinguish the blaze.

“There is bad news — in the center of the fire, radiation is above normal,” Egor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s ecological inspection service, wrote in a Facebook post alongside a video of a Geiger counter. “As you can see in the video, the readings of the device are 2.3, when the norm is 0.14. But this is only within the area of the fire outbreak.”

His measurements refer to the microsievert per hour reading; the maximum allowable amount of natural background radiation is 0.5 microsievert per hour, the emergency services said, but Firsov’s reported amount was nearly five times that.

A total of 124 firefighters, two airplanes and a helicopter are battling the largest blazes, and have carried out 42 water drops on the area. Another 14 firefighters were battling the smaller blaze, the emergency services said.

But the spike in radiation levels does not appear to extend to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, or to the city of Chernobyl itself, where authorities say radiation levels remain normal.

The emergency services said Saturday that increased radiation in some areas had led to “difficulties” in fighting the fire, while stressing that people living nearby were not in danger.

The Chernobyl disaster sent radioactive fallout billowing across Europe when its fourth reactor exploded in April of 1986, causing some 116,000 people to evacuate the immediate area surrounding the plant.

To this day, people are not allowed to live within a 30 kilometers radius of the plant. The region has since been taken over by nature, and forest fires are not uncommon. Experts say that the exclusion zone won’t be safe to inhabit for another 24,000 years.

In 2016, an enormous dome was placed over the remains of the fourth reactor, which experts hope will make the site safe for the eventual dismantlement of the ruin.

The disaster zone and the abandoned nuclear workers’ town of Pripyat have in recent years become a popular tourist destination. Interest has only increases since the release of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, with tour operators reporting as many of 70,000 visitors a year. But as coronavirus spreads, those tours have been canceled.

In 2018, a Ukrainian-German joint venture launched a solar power plant within the exclusion zone. Ukrainian emergency services offered no word on whether the unmanned facility was damaged in the fires.