Climate change increases Chernobyl’s risk of radioactive wildfires
Women in their 20s living just outside the zone face the highest risk from exposure to radioactive smoke, the 2011 study found: 170 in 100,000 would have an increased chance of dying of cancer. Among men farther away in Kiev, 18 in 100,000 20 year olds would be at increased risk of dying of cancer.
the greatest danger from forest fire for most people would be consuming foods exposed to smoke. Milk, meat and other products would exceed safe levels, the 2011 study predicts. The Ukrainian government would almost certainly have to ban consumption of foodstuffs produced as far as 150 kilometres from the fire
Watching for a radioactive forest fire JANE BRAXTON LITTLE, ABC Environment 8 JUL 2013 Tinder dry and radioactive: the forests around Chernobyl are an accident waiting to happen. For 27 years, forests around Chernobyl have been absorbing radioactive elements. A fire would send them skyward again – a growing concern as summers grow longer, hotter and drier. “…….Nikolay Ossienko patrols the forests surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,,,,,,, “Our number one job is to save the forest from fire,”…… It’s a job with international consequences.
For almost three decades the forests around the shuttered nuclear power plant have been absorbing contamination left from the 1986 reactor explosion. Now climate change and lack of management present a troubling predicament: If these forests burn, strontium 90, cesium 137, plutonium 238 and other radioactive elements would be released, according to an analysis of the human health impacts of wildfire in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone conducted by scientists in Germany, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States.
This contamination would be carried aloft in the smoke as inhalable aerosols, that 2011 study concluded.
And instead of being emitted by a single reactor, the radioactive contamination would come from trees that cover some 1,500 square kilometres around the plant, said Sergiy Zibtsev, a Ukrainian forestry professor who has been studying these irradiated forests for 20 years.
“There’s really no question,” he added. “If Chernobyl forests burn, contaminants would migrate outside the immediate area. We know that.”
Combined with changes in climate, these crowded pine forests are a prescription for wildfire. In their assessment of the potential risks of a worst-case fire, Zibtsev and the team of international scientists concluded that much of the Chernobyl forest is “in high danger of burning.”
Zibtsev has been worrying about catastrophic wildfire in Chernobyl since witnessing runaway wildland fires in the western United States while on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2005. He has watched the threat get worse each passing year. Rainfall in the region is decreasing and seasonal droughts are lasting longer, changes Zibtsev attributes to climate change. Scientists say these patterns of drier and longer summers are contributing to forest drying and increased insect attacks.
The predominantly pine forests themselves are part of the problem. After the explosion — the worst nuclear accident in human history — the area surrounding the power plant was evacuated, the fields and forests abandoned. To keep the contamination from moving beyond the area known as the “zone of alienation”, the Ukraine government forbade all commercial activity. For forests, this meant a halt to logging, thinning and removing dead trees. While most of Ukraine boasts woodlands that are carefully manicured, the Chernobyl forests have grown into unmanaged thickets with dense brush below and lifeless canopies above.
The risk of fire in these forests has concerned scientists since 1992, a drought year when more than 170 square kilomtres of forests burned. They know that these ecosystems are trapping radionuclides and slowly redistributing them in soil and vegetation, a process called ‘self-repair’. In some places the contamination level is the same as it was in 1986, most of it in the top 10 centimetres of the soil. Absorbing cesium, plutonium and strontium helps contain radionuclides within the exclusion zone, but it dramatically heightens the alarm over wildfire……..
Oliver, Zibtsev and others began calling attention to the potential for another Chernobyl disaster at variety international and scientific conferences, but the issue drew little more than finger pointing. Until their 2011 study, no one had assessed the human health effects of a catastrophic wildfire in the exclusion zone.
Led by Oliver and Zibtsev, scientists at several institutions in Europe and North America analysed a worst-case scenario: a very hot fire that burns for five days, consumes everything in its path, and sends the smoke 100 kilometres south to Kiev. A separate worst-case study is underway looking at the risks for Sweden, Finland and other European countries heavily impacted by the 1986 explosion.
Women in their 20s living just outside the zone face the highest risk from exposure to radioactive smoke, the 2011 study found: 170 in 100,000 would have an increased chance of dying of cancer. Among men farther away in Kiev, 18 in 100,000 20 year olds would be at increased risk of dying of cancer. These estimates pale in comparison to those from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, which predict between 4,000 and over a million eventual deaths from radiation exposure.
Instead, the greatest danger from forest fire for most people would be consuming foods exposed to smoke. Milk, meat and other products would exceed safe levels, the 2011 study predicts. The Ukrainian government would almost certainly have to ban consumption of foodstuffs produced as far as 150 kilometres from the fire……..
[ People living outside the exclusion zone] would be exposed to radiation beyond all acceptable levels. In addition to ‘normal’ external radiation, they would be inhaling radionuclides in the smoke they breathe — being irradiated both outside and inside……..
The United Nations recently acknowledged the potential for another Chernobyl disaster and has mounted a $20 million sustainable development project designed to address wildfire and other environmental issues. http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/07/08/3797057.htm
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