Thirty years ago, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine – then part of the Soviet Union – spread vast amounts of radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere, irradiating large swaths of land. Without a doubt, it remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. As reported by VICE, residents living near or even within the contaminated areas surrounding the disaster site are still being exposed to deadly radiation, particularly through their diet.
A Greenpeace report released this week notes that the concentrations of radioactive isotopes within locally produced food and crops sometimes contain up to 16 times that of the permissible limits. Researchers highlighted the nuclear isotope caesium-137 as a particular concern, not only because it is easily absorbed by plants, but because it takes several centuries to decay to the point where it becomes non-harmful.
Dangerously high levels were detected in milk, wild mushrooms, berries, and meat. As an example, milk samples collected as far as 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from Chernobyl contained levels of caesium-137 above the permissible limit set for adult consumption, and far above the limits set for children. Drinking or eating any of this food will increase a person’s risk of getting a type of cancer, although the risk increase varies wildly from person to person.
Clearly, the radiation from the disaster has infiltrated the local ecosystem in a fairly comprehensive way, and not just in terms of edible crops. The report mentions that more than 1,100 wildfires occurred between 1993 and 2013 in the area, meaning that radiation from the blast, initially absorbed by vegetation, has been re-released and redistributed.
A rusty road sign within the exclusion zone around the site. Kateryna Upit/Shutterstock
The population eating this contaminated food would do well to stop doing so, but this is easier said than done. The nation’s economy is currently contracting fairly dramatically, which has made sourcing healthier produce increasingly difficult. The longstanding insurgency in the east has only served to exacerbate matters.
This research highlights just how long the shadow cast by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster really is. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that nuclear accidents are actually incredibly rare, and this particular event was caused by a worrying lack of safety procedures and a hugely flawed Soviet reactor design.
The world’s second-most catastrophic nuclear disaster – the Fukushima incident caused by the horrific 2011 tsunami off the coast of Japan – has, thanks to a combination of hard work and luck, largely been contained. It released just one-tenth of the radiation of Chernobyl, most of which blew out to sea. Despite a host of unfounded claims declaring the contrary, there is currently no strong scientific evidence that the radiation there is causing a higher rate of cancer.