Chernobyl forest fires pose no health risk from radiation, says IAEA

27 April 2020

The recent fires in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine have not led to a hazardous increase in air-borne radioactive particles, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on 24 April. The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) has regularly provided information on the fires through the IAEA's Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies (USIE).

Firefighters tackling a forest fire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (Image: State Emergency Service of Ukraine)

Basing its assessment on data provided by Ukraine, the IAEA said the increase in levels of radiation measured in the country was very small and posed no risk to human health.

"In addition, these radiation levels fall significantly with increasing distance from the site of the fires," said Elena Buglova, head of the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre, which has been in close contact with Ukrainian authorities since the fires began in early April.

On 8 April, SNRIU reported via USIE that nuclear and radioactive waste management facilities in the exclusion zone were safe and there was no need to evacuate plant workers or take other protective measures for staff there.

The Ukrainian authorities have a network of radiation monitoring stations country-wide and around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (ChNPP), the last operating reactor of which was shut down two decades ago.

The SNRIU on 14, 17, 20 and 22 April provided updated information to USIE on measurements of radiation levels in the air. The radiation background in the exclusion zone is continuously monitored at 39 points by an automatic radiation monitoring system.

The burning of meadows, pastures and stubble has resulted in some minor increases in radiation due to the release of radionuclides transferred from soil contaminated in the 1986 accident. But the concentration of radioactive materials in the air remained below Ukraine's radiation safety norms and posed no public health concern, the SNRIU said.

"Data from points of facility-level and institutional radiation monitoring systems on the territory of Ukraine that are available for analysis indicate that equivalent gamma dose rates (gamma background in the air) have not changed since the fires occurred and are within natural ranges peculiar to specific locations," SNRIU said on 14 April.

"In connection with prolonged fires, state inspectors of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Inspectorate in the exclusion zone additionally checked the protection of ChNPP facilities against the effects of fires in natural ecosystems and made sure that the plant personnel were properly prepared and ready for actions," SNRIU added. "The nuclear installations and radioactive waste management facilities of the Chernobyl plant are in safe state. They cannot be affected by forest fires because of engineering and technical features and operational actions of personnel."

Ukraine has informed the IAEA that environment monitoring laboratories at the country's operating NPPs, the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Centre, the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute, the Chernobyl NPP and the SSE "Ecocentre" in the exclusion zone continue to monitor the level of radiation in the air in close communication and coordination with SNRIU.

On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl plant suffered the worst nuclear accident in history when a power runaway event wrecked reactor 4. The three remaining reactor units were however vital to Ukraine's electricity needs and continued to operate for some years. Unit 2 was shut down in 1991, unit 1 in 1996 and unit 3 in 2000. The exclusion zone covers an area of about 262,000 hectares immediately surrounding the Chernobyl plant where radioactive contamination from fallout from the accident in 1986 is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted. The zone borders a separately administered area, the Polesie state radiation and ecological reserve, to the north, in Belarus.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News