The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster is being remembered, unhappily, the world over. In Germany, 29 years after the fact, the ancient custom of wild boar hunting is still prohibited because the animals remain too contaminated with Chernobyl’s long-lived radioactivity.
Government warnings of Chernobyl’s cancer-causing fallout are nearly forgotten today, but a May 14, 1986 bulletin from the EPA said, “[A]irborne radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now so widespread that it is likely to fall to the ground wherever it rains in the United States.”
On May 22, 1986, Minnesotans read, “For the second time since the [Chernobyl disaster] last month, a slightly elevated level of radioactive iodine has been found in a Minnesota milk sample, state health officials said. … The amount of iodine-131 in the air also increased slightly [May 19] after several days of decline, health officials said.” (“Slight rise in radioactivity found again in state milk,” Duluth News-Tribune & Herald)
The Associated Press reported May 15, 1986, “State authorities in Oregon have warned residents dependent solely on rainwater for drinking that they should arrange other supplies for the time being.” Likewise, regarding the triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, Forbes.com reported on April 11, 2011: “Radiation from Japan has been detected in drinking water in 13 more American cities, and cesium-137 has been found in American milk — in Montpelier, Vermont — for the first time since the Japan nuclear disaster began, according to data released by the EPA late Friday [April 8].”
Contamination Still Blowing in the Wind
Chernobyl exploded and burned out of control for weeks. The French Nuclear Energy Agency’s “2002 Update of Chernobyl,” noted, “[C]ontinuing low-level releases occurred … for up to 40 days after the accident, particularly on 15 and 16 May, attributable to continuing outbreaks of fires or to hot areas in the reactor.…”
Demonstrating nuclear power’s capacity for whole-earth poisoning, the catastrophic consequences are still spreading 3 decades later.
The dispersion of large amounts of radioactive cesium-137 — which persists in the environment for at least 300 years — was especially concentrated in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia where half the spewed radiation fell; the other half spread to every country in the Northern Hemisphere. The American Geophysical Union reported in 2009 that radioactive cesium-137 dispersed by Chernobyl wouldn’t “disappear” from the environment through decay for up to 320 years.
Cesium has heavily contaminated forested areas of Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, some 1,000 square miles surrounding the reactor where access and habitation are severely limited. When the forests catch fire, radioactive materials including cesium are again dispersed to the winds.
For two months in the summer of 2010, wildfires in Russia burned over 2 million acres and caused at least 50 deaths. The August 10, 2010 New York Times noted that “dozens of fires have been burning in contaminated zones.” Two days later, the AP and the Agency France Presse cited government reports that at least six wildfires had been extinguished “this week” in the heavily-contaminated Bryansk region.
Time magazine later reported about the 2010 wildfires that Russian leaders had removed maps of likely radiation-contaminated fires from web sites maintained by the national forestry agency. (Taking a lesson from the Russians, the US government halted its emergency water and air radiation monitoring on the West Coast two months after the start of Fukushima’s three explosions and meltdowns.)
In 2002, dozens of peat fires and wildfires again spread across heavily-contaminated Belarus. The AP reported July 22, 2002 that “Belarusian Emergency Minister Valery Astapov said radiation levels in the fire zone are elevated…”
The Washington Post and AP reported in April 1996 that a wildfire had “spread quickly through five villages in the exclusion zone, carried by strong winds blowing toward Kiev and its 2.6 million residents. It burned pines and buildings in one of the areas most heavily contaminated with radioactive cesium.”
The latest news of cesium spreading from Chernobyl comes from a team of researchers led by Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina. Forest covered 50% the exclusion zone before the 1986, but trees and brush now cover 70% of the area. Mousseau’s team reports that as climate change heats and dries the region, wildfires are expected to rage more often and more fiercely.
According to Dr. Mousseau’s report, published in Ecological Monographs, wildfires that burned in the exclusion zone in 2002, 2008 and 2010 have together redistributed approximately 8% of the original amount of cesium-137 released by the 1986 disaster, with world worst accidental airborne release. The researchers warned that large blazes in the future could spread significant amounts of radioactive soot across Europe, leading to contamination of food crops.
Asked by the New York Times April 6 what the consequences might be, Dr. Mousseau was circumspect and grim. “There is never a positive consequence of having increased amounts of mutagenic materials in our environment,” he said, “It’s always negative.”
John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly newsletter.