At least seven forest fires continue to burn around the Russian-held Chernobyl nuclear site in Ukraine, raising fears radionuclides could spread from the defunct facility.
According to the statement, the fires now cover an area ten times larger than the emergency criteria for the site’s exclusion zone, but the ongoing war prevents firefighters from putting them out.
Nuclear power plants are not designed to be in war zones. They are highly complex technologies that can be sensitive to even minor disturbances.
Nuclear disasters are caused by a mix of technical, environmental, social and political conditions. And these contingencies don’t always match with the branding of nuclear energy as peaceful, safe and sustainable. This contrast is at its starkest in war zones, but also in the growing advocacy for nuclear energy as a low-carbon solution to climate change.
Are nuclear disasters really beyond expectation?
Consider how Tokyo Electric Power Company knew in 2008 that a tsunami of more than 15.7m could hit Fukushima Daiichi, but did nothing to prepare.
Or consider the current situation at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex. The site has experienced years of hot and dry environmental conditions and contains dry plant material filled with uranium-derived radionuclides from the 1986 nuclear disaster.
While the threat of wildfires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone exists even in peacetime, the Russian takeover increased concerns because soldiers could be cooking, smoking or firing weapons in the area.
As was the case in 2020, fires in the exclusion zone could again result in uranium-derived radionuclides being transported to neighbouring countries.
Expecting the possible onset of a war-induced nuclear disaster, people and schools in Scandinavia and across Europe have begun purchasing iodine tablets. These pills are used to saturate people’s thyroid glands to prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine-131, which could be released if one of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors or nuclear waste storage facilities were to be damaged in the war.
As wind and rain carried uranium-derived radionuclides throughout Japan and around the world, these materials were continually described as “safe” to live alongside, drink and eat. As their measurable levels increased, so did the expectation that people simply needed to accept the new risks to their health.