Wildfires Edge Closer To Ruins Of The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

A satellite image taken by Planet Labs Inc over the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on Thursday, April 9 2020. Planet Labs Inc

The wildfires of northern Ukraine are still burning – and the flames are edging closer and closer to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the abandoned site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

While politicians have insisted the situation is nothing to worry about, environmental activists and locals are accusing authorities of downplaying the fires, suggesting a worrying situation is fast approaching the area. 

Local tour operators have warned that the fire has arrived in Pripyat, the ghost city in northern Ukraine near the ruins of Chernobyl, and is now just 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) away from the disused nuclear power plant and the Pidlisny radioactive waste disposal site. 

“The situation is critical. The zone is burning. Local authorities report that everything is under control, but in fact, the fire rapidly captures new territories,” Yaroslav Yemelianenko, a Chernobyl tour operator, wrote on Facebook.

“Stop making it look like everything is okay! Tell people what's really going on with the fire.”

Speaking to AFP, Sergiy Zibtsev, head of the Regional Eastern European Fire Monitoring Center, described the fire as "super-huge" and "unpredictable." He added, "In the west of the exclusion zone it has already covered 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) by our calculations."

Greenpeace Russia has also warned the situation is much worse than Ukrainian authorities believe. Rashid Alimov, head of energy projects at Greenpeace Russia, told Reuters that the fires, along with the wind, could disperse radionuclides and heighten radiation levels in the area by spreading radioactive particles in the smoke. 

Meanwhile, politicians in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv have called for calm. Anton Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, has also taken to Facebook to say: “Everything will be fine!”

“Radiation background by Kyiv and the Kyiv region are within normal levels and do not exceed natural background values,” Gerashchenko wrote.

Police have arrested a 27-year-old man and accused him of starting the blaze on April 4. However, it remains unclear whether he confessed to starting a number of fires as a joke, according to Reuters

Wildfires in the area are not as uncommon as you might think. A study published in Environmental International in 2014 shows there were at least 54 fires in Chernobyl contaminated areas in 2010 alone, most of which were associated with agriculture. However, it noted the risk of wildfires in the area is increasing due to climate change and increasing tree cover as the area becomes reforested.

Large scale wildfires in Chernobyl's forests could result in a substantial radioactivity redistribution over Europe, the study said. However, given the size of the current wildfires, the risk of the situation affecting the population of Ukraine or beyond appears to be slim. 

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