What’s happened? 

Thirty-five years on, while scientists are still studying the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, governments and companies are laying foundations for new nuclear accidents.

Ranked as the worst nuclear disaster to date, Chernobyl is a quarter of a century older than Fukushima. But it still presents challenges that authorities haven’t figured out how to address. Technology to deal with the radioactive fuel that remains in the reactor doesn’t yet exist. A new sarcophagus was added in 2016 in an attempt to buy some time to invent new approaches.

Why does it matter? 

Around five million people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia still live in territories that are officially recognised as contaminated. People who live here constantly receive new doses of radiation, as documented in joint research produced by Greenpeace and Ukranian scientists. Methods to deactivate the contaminated areas either don’t exist, or – where there are usable technologies – the states do not have resources to deploy them.

Taking Milk Samples in Ukraine. © Denis  Sinyakov / Greenpeace
Mykolai Lazarev, of the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology (UIAR), takes one of 50 milk samples, which then will be tested for caesium in UIAR. To understand better how contamination affects the lives of Chernobyl survivors, Greenpeace carries out two pilot investigations into the remaining radionuclide contamination of locally produced food and forests. © Denis Sinyakov / Greenpeace

Meanwhile, Chernobyl from time to time reminds us that it is still here and is still dangerous. And with climate change the danger only grows.

Last year huge forest fires raged in the exclusion zone. It was not for the first time. In 35 years, fires have broken out in the exclusion zone more than 1,500 times. But due to the unusual drought caused by climate breakdown, it was the largest fire since the exclusion zone was set up, covering a third of this sensitive area. At one point, only a kilometer separated the edge of the fire and the newly built sarcophagus.

Plumes from the fire stretched for tens of kilometres towards Ukraine’s capital Kiev, fuelling fears that the smoke particles may raise radiation levels in the city. Fortunately, this did not happen, the radiation outside the exclusion zone remained at a low level deemed acceptable by the authorities. But firefighters had to work in the most contaminated areas of the zone where, according to press reports, radiation levels exceeded the background level by 16 times.

Forest Fire near Chernobyl. © Oksana Parafeniuk / Greenpeace
A forest fire burns near Krasiatychi town, Kyiv region, Ukraine, 60 km from the nuclear power plant. The fire in this forest is one of many in Ukraine now, due to Ukrainians’ habit of setting dry grass on fire in spring to clear land for agriculture. One such fire has been burning in the radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant for more than a week and is still not extinguished. Radioactive dust is whirled up. © Oksana Parafeniuk / Greenpeace

What do the scientists say? 

“Unfortunately, we have very little information on the radiological environmental hazards of fires in radioactively contaminated areas,” says Professor Valery Kashparov, head of the Ukrainian Research Institute of Agricultural Radiology.

“Fires pose the greatest problem mainly from the point of view of the radiation exposure of firefighters. For them the danger is the highest. The greatest danger may be related to the inhaled dose, due to the intake and the entry of radionuclides into the lungs.”

What needs to happen? 

Firefighters need to have complete information on the radiation risks before they go to the contaminated areas. But the last study on this issue was done 20 years ago and since then the natural conditions have shifted. The climate crisis is causing more frequent droughts, ecosystems have changed and each fire has had an impact on the local environment.  

This year, when the weather conditions allow it, the Institute with support from Greenpeace, will study a range of parameters that influence radiation doses during the fires. 

“The main task of the experiment is to estimate the expected doses for firefighters – because this is the most critical group that can receive the highest inhalation doses during a fire. We will then work out recommendations to minimise the risk,” says Professor Kashparov.

The bigger picture 

The fire experiment will provide the data needed to assess risks faced by firefighters. That’s crucial for protection of the individuals, their families and colleagues. But this is only one of the dangers caused by the nuclear disaster 35 years ago that still has to be dealt with. And who knows how much more scientists will discover in the future. 

Even countries that have survived the horrors of this disaster on their soil continue to cling tenaciously to nuclear power. A new nuclear power plant is being built right now in Belarus. Russia not only builds stationary ones, but has launched a floating nuclear power plant – the ‘Akademik Lomonosov’ operated by Rosatom was immediately dubbed a ‘floating Chernobyl’. More than 30 countries around the world are still operating nuclear plants.

What’s needed now?

What the world really needs is for governments and companies to stop introducing new nuclear risks when we still cannot cope with the existing ones. The only way to do this is to phase out nuclear energy and switch to renewables as soon as possible.

Andrey Allakhverdov is a media coordinator at Greenpeace Russia

Correction 24/4: Reference to radiation outside the exclusion zone remaining at a safe level following fires in 2020 has been corrected to say that the low level was deemed acceptable by authorities.