What are the health and ecological dangers of military activity in Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, due to human error, the reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted to everyone's amazement, releasing into the sky and into the environment large quantities of radioactive particles and gases. In all 400 times more radioactivity than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Since then, the site, located in northern Ukraine, has been surrounded by a 2 square kilometer exclusion zone with no access. Put in place to contain radioactive contaminants, it also protects the area from human disturbance.

With the exception of a handful of industrial sectors, most of the area is completely isolated from all human activity and looks almost…normal. In places where radiation levels have dropped sufficiently over time, plants and animals have returned in significant numbers.

A fox standing in the grass
The drop in radioactivity in certain sectors has allowed life to return. Here, a fox near the power plant.
TA Mousseau, 2019, CC BY-ND

So much so that some scientists have suggested that the exclusion zone has become a sort of Eden for wildlife… Others are more skeptical about this interpretation. Appearances can be deceiving. In sectors with high radioactivity, the size and diversity of the populations ofbirds, mammals and D'bugs are thus significantly lower than in those considered to be “cleaner”.

I spent more than 20 years to work in Ukraine, as well as in Belarus and Fukushima, Japan, mainly on the effects of radiation...

Also, in recent days, I have been asked on several occasions what interest the Russian forces had in entering through northern Ukraine through this atomic wasteland, and what the environmental consequences of military activity in this zone.

On February 24, Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl power plant.

Why go through Chernobyl?

In retrospect, the strategic advantages of basing military operations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone seem obvious. It is a vast, unpopulated region connected by a highway directly to the Ukrainian capital, with few obstacles or human developments along the way.

The Chernobyl area also 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 parking lot where the thousands of vehicles of an invading army can be parked.

The site also houses the main power grid switching network of the region. It is possible to turn off the lights of Kyiv from here, although the plant itself has not produced electricity since 2000 – when the last of its four reactors was shut down.

This power supply control is arguably of strategic importance, although Kiev's power needs could probably be met by other nodes of the Ukrainian national power grid.

In addition, the plant is likely to provide protection from air attacks since it is unlikely that Ukrainian (or other) forces would risk fighting on a site containing more than 2,4 million kilograms of radioactive spent nuclear fuel...

We are talking here about highly radioactive materials produced by a nuclear reactor in normal operation. A direct impact on the pools where they are kept or on the plant's dry drum storage facilities could release far more radioactive material into the environment than the initial meltdown and explosions of 1986. global environmental.

(On March 8, the IAEA indicated that “the remote transmission of data from the safeguards control systems installed at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had been cut off”. Since March 9, the electricity has been cut but without this posing any security problem for the time being according to the IAEA, editor's note)

Overview of a semi-abandoned site, with some grass and the power plant structures in the background, still connected to electricity pylons
Distant view of the power plant and the sarcophagus covering the gutted reactor.
TA Mousseau, CC BY-ND

Environmental risk

Despite the cleanup work, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains one of the most radioactively contaminated areas on the planet. Over thousands of hectares surrounding the reactor site, ambient radiation dose rates exceed by several thousand times the normal background levels. In some parts of the "Red Forest" located around the plant, it is possible to receive a dangerous radiation dose in just a few days of exposure.

Radiation monitoring stations set up throughout the area recorded the first obvious environmental impact of the invasion. Sensors placed by Ukraine's Chernobyl EcoCentre in the event of an accident or forest fire have revealed a dramatic increase in radiation levels along major roads and near reactors after 21 p.m. on February 24, 2022.

This is when the Russian invaders arrived, from neighboring Belarus.

As the increase in radiation levels was more evident near the reactor buildings, it was feared that the containment structures had been damaged, although Russian authorities have denied this possibility.

Then, the sensor network suddenly stopped reporting at the beginning of February 25 and did not restart until the 1er March. This makes the full extent of disruption caused by troop movements unclear.

If it was dust kicked up by vehicles and not damage to containment facilities that caused the increase in radiation, and assuming that this increase lasted only a few hours, it is unlikely to be of long-term concern. In fact, the disturbed dust should settle again once the troops are gone. That doesn't mean it's inconsequential.

Indeed, the Russian soldiers, as well as the workers of the Ukrainian plant who were taken hostage, undoubtedly inhaled some of the raised particles. Researchers know that the land of the Chernobyl exclusion zone may contain radionuclides, especially from cesium 137, strontium 90, several isotopes of plutonium, uranium and americium 241.

Even at very low levels, they are all toxic, carcinogenic or both if inhaled.

Possible health impacts

Perhaps the greatest threat to the region comes from the potential release into the atmosphere of radionuclides that have been trapped for thirty years in the soil and plants in the event of a forest fire.

Aerial view of a forest fire near the power plant
Forest fires in the exclusion zone release the radioactive particles trapped for 30 years in the vegetation (here in 2020).
Volodymyr Shuvayev/AFP

Such fires have recently increased in frequency, size and intensity, likely due to climate change. And we know that they released radioactive materials into the air and widely dispersed.

Radioactive fallout from forest fires could thus represent the greatest threat to the Chernobyl site for the human populations downwind of the region, as well as for the fauna and flora of the exclusion zone.

Currently, the area is home to lots of dead trees and debris that could be used as fuel. Even in the absence of combat, the simple military presence – with these thousands of soldiers transiting, eating, smoking and making campfires to keep warm – increases the risk of fire.

He's difficult to predict the effects of radioactive fallout on people, but consequences on flora and fauna are well documented.

Bird held in the hand and with a visible tumor on the head, through the feathers
Radioactivity can cause cancer, as here for this bird which developed a tumor on the skull.
TA Mousseau, 2009, CC BY-ND

Chronic exposure to even relatively low doses has been associated with numerous effects in wildlife: genetic mutations, you die, eye cataracts, the sterility and neurological impairments. Population size et biodiversity are also affected in heavily contaminated areas and are experiencing significant declines.

When we talk about ionizing radiation, irradiation, there is no "safe" level. And the risks to life are directly proportional to the level of exposure.

Should the ongoing conflict escalate and damage the radiation containment facilities at Chernobyl, or any of the 15 nuclear reactors located at four other sites in Ukraine, the scale of environmental damage would be catastrophic.

Timothy A. Mousseau, Professor of Biological Sciences, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / DimaSid

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