Ukraine Wildfires Within Half a Mile of Abandoned Chernobyl Plant, Poses Radiation Risk

April 14, 2020 Updated: April 14, 2020

Raging forest fires in Ukraine that have been burning for more than a week have spread to an area located just over half a mile (1 km) from the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant and pose a radiation risk, according to reports.

Greenpeace Russia on Monday said that satellite images from April 4 showed one blaze covered an area of around 12,000 hectares—one thousand times bigger than what Ukrainian authorities had claimed at that time.

“According to satellite images taken on Monday, the area of the largest fire has reached 34,400 hectares,” Greenpeace added.

According to the NGO, on Monday, a separate fire covering an area of 12,600 hectares, was just over half a mile (1 km) away from the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant—site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.

Chernobyl tour operator Yaroslav Yemelianenko said on Facebook Monday that one forest fire had reached the town of Pripyat, which served the power plant and has been abandoned since the 1986 disaster.

Yemelianenko, who is a public advisory board member of Ukraine’s emergency service, described the situation as critical, adding that “the zone is burning.”

The fire is 1.24 miles (2 km) from where “the most highly active radiation waste of the whole Chernobyl zone is located,” he wrote.

Yemelianenko posted a video that appeared to show a plume of smoke rising close to the protective shelter over the remains of Chernobyl’s Unit 4 nuclear reactor.

Changes in radiation levels in the 19 miles (30 km) exclusion zone around the plant had not been recorded, according to Ukraine’s Emergency Situations Service, adding that in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, radiation levels “did not exceed natural background levels.”

Rashid Alimov, head of energy projects at Greenpeace Russia, warned that if the wind fans the forest fires, it could cause the dispersion of radionuclides, atoms that emit radiation.

“A fire approaching a nuclear or hazardous radiation facility is always a risk,” Alimov said. “In this case, we’re hoping for rain tomorrow.”

Kateryna Pavlova, head of the Ukraine State Agency for Management of the Exclusion Zone, told the New York Times that they “cannot say the fire is contained,” but that they plan to water bomb the fires.

“We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” she said.

Ukraine’s emergency service on Monday urged the public not to pay attention to “apocalyptic messages.”

“The main thing we can say is that there is no threat to the nuclear power station, the spent fuel storage, and to other critical sites in the exclusion zone,” the agency said, the Guardian reported.

The blaze is being tackled by more than 300 firefighters on the ground, while efforts to extinguish it from above are being assisted by six helicopters and planes.

The fires started on April 3, and police say they have identified a local resident, 27, who they claim started the blaze deliberately by setting fire to dry grass near the exclusion zone.

Reuters contributed to this report.