​‘Indefinite danger’: Chernobyl wildfire crisis is natural part of centuries-long disaster cycle

An aerial view from a helicopter shows smoke from forest fires in northern Ukraine, April 28, 2015. (Reuters/Andrew Kravchenko)
While ongoing forest fires around Chernobyl pose an immediate threat to health, the long-lived radioactive particles will continue cycling through the ecosystem in any case, even when the crisis is averted, warns nuclear historian Robert Jacobs.

RT:The Chernobyl incident is labeled as one of the world’s worst nuclear power accidents. How dangerous was this disaster compared to other emergencies that we have seen?

Robert Jacobs: It was terribly damaging, partly because of the lack of containment around the reactor core. The explosion dispersed tremendous amount of the radioactive fuel that was in the reactor into the cloud, in surrounding area in a plume. So it actually spread the radiation quite significantly across a large area.

There were explosions at the Fukushima plant but they did not expel nearly as much fuel as was expelled at Chernobyl. So it is a different kind of radiological disaster there. But certainly the disaster in Chernobyl was catastrophic. As you can see efforts to mediate against further contamination from those releases are ongoing decades and decades later.

RT:Well how worried should we be today?

RJ: We should definitely be worried because there is a very significant danger. Because a lot of radiation has been taken up by the trees and the plants in the area in the exclusion zone, as well as outside the exclusion zone, but in really heavy amounts in the exclusion zone.

READ MORE: Chernobyl fire must be stopped before it penetrates contaminated exclusion zone

If those trees and that brush is burned it will release the radiation that is held inside the leaves, the stems and other parts of the plant so they can be inhaled. When they are inhaled they pose a tremendously dangerous threat to the people that inhale those radionuclides into their lungs. And potentially some of these particles could lodge inside their body. It is much more dangerous than the radiation you experience from just standing near them, which is also dangerous. But internalizing which can also happen when they go to smoke, when they are aerosolized is very dangerous.

One thing I would like to point out at is that regardless of what happens now, even though there is clear danger from this forest fire releasing this, even if this is under control, this is a hazard that will remain. You have all these radionuclides round up into this brush and into these trees.

And over the course of 100 years there’s bound to be a forest fire that goes through that entire area. There is nuclear waste buried there. So whether we can contain it now or not we face this danger indefinitely.

READ MORE: Forest fires heading for Chernobyl nuclear plant – Ukraine Interior Ministry

RT:How worried should we be about the “illness” factor now or in the future?

RJ: Well there are different ways that the radiation can affect people. The initial explosion that happened in Chernobyl laid down a tremendously contaminated area. And a lot of people were exposed to the gamma radiation, which is sort of like X-rays, they sort of penetrate through your entire body. You receive a whole body doze and that can cause illnesses.

What we are facing now is the dangers from alpha-emitting particles. These are individual particles. They are not so high on radiation to our bodies externally but they are dangerous when we internalize them inside of our bodies through inhaling them, swallowing them, or through the cuts in the skin. And what will happen then... it is possible for a particle like that to move through the body and be expelled but it is also very likely that it can be taken up by the body and stored someplace inside the body. And while the amount of the radiation isn’t very high, it will emit that radiation 24 hours a day to the cells around it.

READ MORE: Smoke from Chernobyl fire could spread radiation far and wide – experts

So it is very likely for people who internalize alpha-emitting particles to have a high dangers of developing cancers and other immune disorders over the course of 10-20 years. This is far more acute for children whose cells are dividing and whose bodies are growing rapidly, these decease will present quicker.

RT:And what is the future of Chernobyl then?

RJ: Well the future is this cycle repeating itself again and again. There is obviously a lot of discussion to obtaining proper funding in order to complete the Safe Containment Facility. But you know there was a sarcophagus build over it. It lasted less than 30 years. It has to be replaced. This one will last for some period of time. It will have to get replaced. These radionuclides will remain dangerous for, in some cases tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. So this cycle of needing to re-contain this corium will go on certainly for some hundreds of years. And the danger of forest fires which inevitably will move through every area over the course of few hundred years will eventually re-release these radionuclides that are in the tree and the brush. So in essence you have a disaster like Chenobyl, you know, as some people say, we know when this disaster happened, when it started, but we don't know when it ends. Because it never really ends. As long as we have these long-lived particles that will continue to be dangerous long long into future generations, they’ll simply cycle through the ecosystem and be taken up by plants and released by fires. So this is the cycle we are in the midst of. We are at the crisis point now, but even averting this crisis is not the end

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.