Protected space around the once power plant at Chernobyl is a very risky place. Climate change is raising temperatures and reducing rainfall everywhere. Brush and trees have taken over 70% of everything in the exclusion zone that is an area about four times the size of New York City. The area is prone to fires. The smoke that would be produced is especially toxic and can release contaminants that include radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium and plutonium into the air.
This poses a risk certainly to Chernobyl but also to all of Europe. Wildfires have broken out in 2002, 2008 and 2010. They cumulatively redistributed an estimated 8% of the cesium-137 deposited by the original explosion. No one knows how damaging new fires would be but redistribution of the original cesium, strontium and plutonium might lead to crop contamination throughout Europe.
This possibility, that there might be crop contamination in Europe, is in part a result of the severity of the original contamination at Chernobyl. While this accident was one of only two events earning the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) rating of 7 it released 10 times the radiation of the other event that earned a 7 rating that was the meltdown at Fukushima, Japan. This 7 rating indicates “countermeasures to protect the public.”
While still not completely funded, the new Chernobyl protective cover is scheduled to be finished by November 2017. As you may remember a previous article on this blog (see Chernobyl 2012: the Disaster That Keeps Reminding) gives a complete description of the radiation damage suffered by the tons of concrete and iron used in the original covering of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. The convex structure being built over the original ‘sarcophagus’ hopefully will allow us to dismantle the original reactor and remove all radioactive material from the power plant itself.
There is a conspiracy theory documentary about Chernobyl developed by Chad Garcia shown at the Sundance Film Festival entitled The Russian Woodpecker. It points to the recent Russian actions in Ukraine and labels them an outgrowth of continued Russian meddling in the region. More importantly it offers an alternate description of the original meltdown at Chernobyl. This film points to other nuclear accidents like the 3rd most damaging contamination at Kyshtym (identified as a level 6 disaster by the International Nuclear Event Scale) also in the Soviet Union and draws an unflattering comparison to Chernobyl.
A recent international study of animal life in the Chernobyl exclusion zone headed by Tatiana Deryabina of the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve (PSRER) showed that wildlife in the zone has rebounded since the accident. Based on this study, there was no evidence of long-term radiation damage to the large mammal populations. The numbers of elk, wild boar and wolves grew. The wolf population is more than seven times larger than those in nearby uncontaminated nature reserves. The conclusion of these efforts was that the reason wildlife blossomed was more a result the absence of humans than anything else.
Co-author Jim Smith, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth in the USA said, “This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse.” A recent article in The Guardian from early October 2015, stated, “But sadly, this study clearly shows that putting a big fence around an area to keep people out is beneficial to wildlife, even if the negative effects of radiation contamination on wildlife – increased mutation rates, cancers and other abnormalities – may be masked by this advantage.”
This series of articles implies that no people are allowed in the exclusion zone because of the dangers and yet there are several tour firms that care for the tourists who want to tour a once forbidden place or stay in one of the few hotels inside the exclusion zone.
Visitors are brought into the zone by tour busses from Kiev. Once in the exclusion zone they have to sign a disclaimer that warns them not to touch anything or sit on the ground. Body scanners are used just before tourists leave on the tour busses. If an alarm sounds, guards sweep the person for radioactive dust before they are allowed to leave.
It is just under thirty years since the explosions and nuclear contamination of Chernobyl. And yet, the surrounding town looks just as it did when it was evacuated days after the meltdown. The city of Pripyat looks the way it did before the fall of the iron curtain. Its Ferris wheel is rusted and traces of life in the former USSR are strewn everywhere.
As the site ages the radioactivity may lessen a little but will stay radioactive for decades. It is important we not forget why the area is off limits and what happened here lest we repeat it in the future or have another event that spreads radioactivity over a wide area.
Use the following links to obtain additional information or access the original documents used to write this article.