Military action in Chernobyl could be dangerous for people and the environment

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The following essay is reproduced with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant site in northern Ukraine has been surrounded for more than three decades by a 1,000 square mile (2,600 square kilometer) exclusion zone that keeps people out. On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl’s number four reactor melted down due to human error, releasing large amounts of radioactive particles and gases into the surrounding landscape – 400 times more radioactivity in the environment than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Set up to contain radioactive contaminants, the exclusion zone also protects the area from human disturbance.

Where is Chernobyl?

The former Chernobyl nuclear power plant was destroyed in 1986 in an accident that rendered 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) uninhabitable.

Location of Chernobyl
Credit: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND

Other than a handful of industrial areas, most of the Exclusion Zone is completely isolated from human activity and appears almost normal. In some areas, where radiation levels have dropped over time, plants and animals have returned in large numbers.

Some scientists have suggested the area has become an Eden for wildlife, while others are skeptical of the possibility. Appearances can be deceiving, at least in areas of high radioactivity, where the size and diversity of bird, mammal, and insect populations are significantly lower than in “clean” parts of the exclusion zone.

I spent over 20 years working in Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Fukushima, Japan, mostly on the effects of radiation. I have been asked several times in recent days why Russian forces entered northern Ukraine via this atomic wasteland and what the environmental consequences of military activity in the area might be.

In early March 2022, Russian forces controlled the Chernobyl facility.

Why invade via Chernobyl?

With hindsight, the strategic advantages of basing military operations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone seem obvious. It is a large, unpopulated area connected by a tarmac highway directly to the Ukrainian capital, with few obstacles or human developments along the way. The Chernobyl area borders Belarus and is therefore safe from attack by Ukrainian forces from the north. The industrial zone of the reactor site is, in fact, a large car park conducive to the parking of thousands of vehicles of an invading army.

The plant site also houses the main power grid switching network for the entire region. It’s possible to turn off the lights in Kyiv from here, although the power plant itself hasn’t produced electricity since 2000, when the last of Chernobyl’s four reactors was shut down. Such power supply control is likely to be of strategic importance, although Kiev’s power needs could probably also be supplied through other nodes of the Ukrainian national power grid.

The reactor site likely offers considerable protection from air attack, given the likelihood that Ukrainian or other forces are likely to fight over a site containing more than 5.3 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of radioactive spent nuclear fuel. This is the highly radioactive material produced by a nuclear reactor during normal operation. A direct impact on the power plant’s spent fuel pools or dry drum storage facilities could release far more radioactive material into the environment than the initial meltdown and explosions of 1986 and thus cause an environmental disaster of global proportions. .

Environmental risks on the ground in Chernobyl

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas on the planet. Thousands of acres surrounding the reactor site have ambient radiation dose rates exceeding thousands of times typical background levels. In some parts of the so-called red forest near the power plant, it is possible to receive a dangerous radiation dose in just a few days of exposure.

Radiation monitoring stations in the Chernobyl zone recorded the first obvious environmental impact of the invasion. Sensors set up by Ukraine’s Chernobyl Ecocentre in the event of an accident or forest fire showed dramatic jumps in radiation levels along major roads and next to reactor facilities from after 21 hours on February 24, 2022. It was then that the Russian invaders reached the area from neighboring Belarus.

Since the increase in radiation levels was most evident in the immediate vicinity of the reactor buildings, it was feared that the containment structures had been damaged, although Russian authorities denied this possibility. The sensor network abruptly stopped reporting early on February 25 and did not restart until March 1, 2022, so the full extent of disruption in the region from troop movements is unclear.

If, in fact, it was dust kicked up by vehicles and not damage to containment facilities that caused the increase in radiation readings, and assuming the increase only lasted a few hours, it is unlikely to be a long-term concern, as the dust will settle once the troops pass.

But the Russian soldiers, as well as the Ukrainian power plant workers who were taken hostage, no doubt inhaled some of the blown dust. Researchers know that dirt from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone may contain radionuclides, including cesium-137, strontium-90, several isotopes of plutonium and uranium, and americium-241. Even at very low levels, they are all toxic, carcinogenic or both if inhaled.

Possible impacts further

Perhaps the greatest environmental threat to the region comes from the potential release to the atmosphere of radionuclides stored in soil and plants if a forest fire were to occur.

These fires have recently increased in frequency, size and intensity, likely due to climate change, and these fires have been throwing radioactive material into the air and dispersing it far and wide. Radioactive fallout from forest fires may well pose the greatest threat from the Chernobyl site to human populations downwind of the region as well as to wildlife in the exclusion zone.

Currently, the area is home to huge amounts of dead trees and debris that could serve as fuel for a fire. Even in the absence of combat, military activity — like thousands of soldiers transiting, eating, smoking and making campfires for warmth — increases the risk of wildfires.

It is difficult to predict the effects of radioactive fallout on humans, but the consequences on flora and fauna are well documented. Chronic exposure to even relatively low levels of radionuclides has been associated with a wide variety of health consequences in wildlife, including genetic mutations, tumors, eye cataracts, sterility and neurological disorders, as well as a reduction in population size and biodiversity in areas of high contamination.

There is no “safe” level for ionizing radiation. The dangers to life are directly proportional to the level of exposure. If the ongoing conflict escalates and damages radiation containment facilities at Chernobyl, or at any of 15 nuclear reactors at four other sites across Ukraine, the scale of environmental damage would be catastrophic.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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