Forest Fires in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – April 2020

Fig. 1. Forest Fires in Chernobyl, partly destroying some of the many builds of historical curiosity – April 2020.

13 April 2020 – Update for residents of Kyiv, Ukraine.

Noting the large number of misleading stories and articles which continue in the media this week. I would like to give a further update regarding the fire in the Exclusion Zone (EZ) close to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and try to further alleviate any concerns of the possibility of airborne radiological contamination.

First let me stress, this is a very serious fire. It is destroying the forest, the unique ecosystem and historical buildings of rare curiosity. The underfunded and underequipped fire services are doing everything within their power to bring the fire under control, with what equipment they have. These people are exceptional in their courage and stamina, and I am sure everyone is proud of them.

PERSPECTIVE OF RADIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION IN THE EXCLUSION ZONE:- Let me begin briefly by explaining about the levels of radiation being reported in the media. I’ll try and put this into perspective and explain what I can – using an equivalent reference of 1 chest x-ray which equals 0.1 millisievert, that’s a one time dose of 100 µSv (microsieverts).

WHAT IS NORMAL FOR CHERNOBYL:- Reports and photos show counter readings at 0.32 µSv/h (per hour) and in another 0.25 µSv/h, with one report on CNN stating 2.3µSv/h. Not only is this normal for this area, but if you walk around the red forest on a normal day (not that you should), you will find levels of 6.00µSv/h and above – far exceeding any readings currently reported in the media.

WHY ARE WE SEEING THESE LEVELS:- The readings reported are coming mainly from strontium 90 and caesium 137 particles producing Gamma radiation in the ground soil, slightly below the surface. This material was produced during the initial explosion of Reactor 4 in 1986, and fell in a Gaussian plume, in and around the forest area. Contrary to some common misunderstanding, this radiation is not coming from airborne contaminants, and is not ‘spiking’ to any degree on the ground. Since the 1986 accident, this radiation has always been present, on and in the ground, producing the levels of radiation we see today, as what we sometimes call Gamma shine. More importantly, Gamma radiation will not travel suspended in the air, and reduces exponentially within a relatively short distance.

THE DANGER IS WITH THE FIREFIGHTERS:- Although the probability of any (gamma activated, alpha or beta) radiation becoming airborne, in any form of particulate from the forest fires is extremely remote. It is quite possible that firefighters may be receiving (from the ground), the equivalent of 1 chest x-ray, and above, ‘per day’ whilst fighting these fires, certainly in particular areas within the Forest. These are the people we should truly be concerned about.

FIRES AT CHERNOBYL:- Again, I can not stress enough how serious the fire at Chernobyl is. However, we too readily forget these events happen on average every two years, approximately. The last serious forest fire event in June 2018, resulted in part of the site being evacuated. Serious fires also occurred in 2016 and 2015, with the latter setting alight over 400 hectares, burning a part of the red forest and destroying a number of abandoned houses. These events can be traced back to the mid 90’s. It should be said, through observational science, that at no time, in any of these forest fire events, did radiation become airborne.

NUCLEAR FACILITIES AT CHERNOBYL:- When we design a nuclear facility such as the NSC ArchISF-2 or indeed any facility containing hazardous materials, fires, including forest fires are accounted for and mitigated in the design. These include, fire breaks, hard surface areas and the removal of any fire loading, including trees close to any facility. The facilities themselves are also protected with fireproof cladding and within are equipped with automatic fire suppression systems. Therefore, there is little chance the Arch, Object Shelter or any other nuclear facility will catch fire as a result.

I would like to say, have faith in the radiation monitoring equipment which has been installed. Please remember, we are no longer living in the USSR where the general public was constantly kept in the dark. There are literally hundreds of monitoring stations with sophisticated state-of-the-art air sampling systems, not only in the EZ and Kyiv, but all around Ukraine and Bordering countries, monitored internationally.

Whilst I cannot share detailed monitoring links due to restrictions, I can share a link to ChNPPs Chernobyl’s Radiation Monitoring (RM) and Early Warning System (EWS) which has live reporting and is free for public access. Each of the monitoring stations is clickable for basic stats, see link below.

Fig. 2. Chernobyl EZ Radiation Map, showing RM and EWS monitoring stations.

IN CONCLUSION:- Other than feeling discomfort due to inhalation of smoke from burning vegetation, there is no danger of radiation exposure in Kyiv from the fires at Chernobyl. Furthermore, all Nuclear Facilities are currently safe from exposure to heat and fire.

Fig. 3. Chernobyl EZ Area Map, showing RM and EWS monitoring stations.
Fig. 4. Chernobyl (EZ) Satellite image Forest Fire 12 April 2020.

Anthony James Addington-Barker – Associate Director Nuclear Safety, Chernobyl Projects – Monitoring Consultant to EBRD & G7.

1. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (EZ) Radiation Monitoring Systems
2. NASA – FIRMS, Fire Information Systems
Nuclear Safety Projects & Radiation Science | Particle Physics | Fluid & Thermodynamics | Climate Variability & Environmental Science | Other areas of research: British (Royal) Etiquette | Social & Behavioural Psychology.