Concerns of radiation are once again escalating around Chernobyl. At least seven nearby fires broke out in the region controlled by Russia's military on Monday, according to Ukraine’s parliament.
The fires could be seen using satellite imagery from the European Space Agency. Ukrainian officials and firefighters couldn’t use their typical protocol to extinguish the fire because the nuclear power plant is in Russia’s control, but the Associated Press reported Tuesday that the fires have been extinguished.
The parliament said fires were within about six miles of radioactive waste and contamination presents a “particular danger,” but Ukraine’s Natural Resources Minister Ruslan Strelets said Tuesday that radiation levels are normal at the moment. Other blazes were also visible on satellite imagery on Monday, burning roughly 25 miles from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The yellow squares outline where two forest and field fires are burning about 25 miles from the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Other blazes closer to the plant have been extinguishedImage: Brian Kahn/Protocol/Sentinel Hub
The risk of wildfires spreading radiation brings back the specter of what happened in 2020 when massive blazes spread in the Exclusion Zone, likely due to arson. Those fires may have exposed firefighters to higher amounts of radiation than Chernobyl’s own workers. Monitors found increased levels of cesium, and the level of radiation near the fires was 16 times higher than usual.
This week's fires add to ongoing concerns that fighting and Russian troop movements in the region. Chernobyl is home to a stockpile of radioactive waste. But the soils surrounding it are also contaminated and heavy machinery moving through the area runs the risk of kicking up some of that radiation, as do fires.
The initial explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 spread radiation across parts of Europe. While troop movements alone wouldn't have a similar calamitous effect, fighting in the Exclusion Zone near the defunct nuclear power plant as well as around other active Ukrainian nuclear facilities is still a concern.
Effectively monitoring radiation at the plant has also been a problem since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The International Atomic Energy Agency lost access to data from the plant, and working conditions for staffers on-site deteriorated over the weeks as they were unable to leave. On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said staff at Chernobyl have (finally) rotated, which helps ensure the plant is operating safely — at least as safely as can be given its position in the middle of a war zone — by allowing staffers to rest.