Forest fires have erupted in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, with Ukraine claiming that Russian control of the abandoned power plant is hampering efforts to control the flames.
At least seven fires have been spotted within Chernobyl’s exclusion zone via satellite imagery taken by the European Space Agency, according to a statement by Ukraine’s parliament.
The fires were probably ignited by the “armed aggression of the Russian federation”, the parliament said, although it’s not clear whether it was shelling, arson or some other factor that caused the outbreak. Fires like these within 10km of the plant are “particularly dangerous”, the statement added, with Ukraine claiming its firefighters are unable to tackle the blazes due to Russia’s presence.
However, about 200 tons of fuel remain at the bottom of the crippled reactor and is relatively unprotected. Experts have raised concern that fierce fighting in the area could damage the reactor further and cause radioactive material to escape.
Ukrainian authorities say the ongoing war is also hindering attempts to monitor radiation levels at Chernobyl. “There is no data on the current state of radiation pollution of the exclusion zone’s environment, which makes it impossible to adequately respond to threats,” said Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear company. “Radiation levels in the exclusion zone and beyond, including not only Ukraine, but also other countries, could significantly worsen.”
In 2020, a forest fire near the reactor caused radiation levels to spike to 16 times above normal. The conflagration was extinguished after a two-week effort by firefighters, with a man arrested for allegedly starting the fire “for fun”.
Climate scientists have pointed out that such potential disasters are partially a symptom of global heating, with rising temperatures causing forests to dry out and become more suitable fuel for fire. In Europe, places from Sweden to the Mediterranean have experienced record fire outbreaks in recent years.
LeRoy Westerling, an expert in wildfires at the University of California, said warmer temperatures are causing bigger fire seasons around the world, although the situation in Ukraine is complicated “in the context of a war where there are a lot of unusual ignition sources”.
“Burning around Chernobyl is a concern because the burning may mobilize radioactive particles that were deposited decades ago when the reactors melted down,” he added.
In the Chernobyl region itself, the die-off of surrounding trees due to the nuclear disaster has left a large amount of dead, fire-prone wood that is susceptible to large blazes. In 2015, an international team of scientists warned that “an expanding flammable area associated with climate change will lead to a high risk of radioactive contamination with characteristic fire peaks in the future.” The study added that firefighting infrastructure in the area was understaffed and underfunded, even before the Russian invasion.
Separate research published last year confirmed that smoke from forest fires can carry radioactive material, and that the escalating climate crisis risks “nuclear wildfires [that] present a pressing yet little discussed problem”.