Chernobyl: the fallout
Text Andrea Muratore
Video Pierpaolo Mittica

Europe is Worried About Chernobyl Arson Attacks

The situation of the forest fires which for over two weeks have been devastating the area of Ukraine surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is becoming increasingly worrying. The area which in 1986 was the scene of the shocking disaster has since then raised concerns about the risks of a leak of radioactive waste caused by external factors. Since 4 April, a series of woodland fires have spread throughout the area close to the spent nuclear reactor, fuelling fear of a massive outlet of radioactive and contaminated materials into Europe’s atmosphere and skies.

According to initial investigations the fires are to be considered arson. Or so it would seem from the confessions of a 27-year-old man arrested by Ukrainian police who confessed he set fire to the woods “for fun”. However, the fire’s magnitude and its further development suggest there might have been a series of causes. As pointed out by GreenMe, the information site focusing particularly of the environment and its problems, at the moment “there are three hot spots: one located approximately 70 km west of the Chernobyl power plant, extending for 25 km. A second one is in an area around 30 km west of the Chernobyl plant, on the borders of the exclusion zone, while two other smaller hot spots are located in the exclusion zone in close proximity to the power plant (approx. 2 km)”.

An unhabited house burns in the middle of a forest fire near the village of Volodymyrivka, in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, Sunday April 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Yaroslav Yemelianenko)

Arsen Avakov, Ukriane’s Minister of Internal Affairs, stated that one of these two hot spots had been localized and put under control: for days, hundreds of firefighters have been working to exhaustion, both physically and mentally in order to contain a possible environmental disaster. As the flames spread to within proximity of the radioactive waste deposit there was growing apprehension of a disaster similar to that of the 1986 fallout while according to the French research center IRSN, in the two weeks of fire a radioactive cloud has already made its way across Europe with its effects being felt especially in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

A view of a forest fire burning near the village of Volodymyrivka in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, Sunday, April 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Yaroslav Yemelianenko)

The firefighting units are battling strenuously. Meanwhile damage in the area, both at a human and wildlife level is being calculated. A number of hotel compounds, tourist resorts and homes have been destroyed.  Also, the rebirth of wildlife and nature which the region of Chernobyl had experienced over the past 34 years has been put at risk. A great part of the famous Red Forest has also been burned down; the forest owes its name to the colour of pine trees, fir trees, poplars and birch trees which in a 4.1 square kilometer area were completely swept over by the fallout caused by the nuclear reactor’s explosion and were contaminated, thus dying and taking on this particular colour. 

A forest fire burning near the village of Volodymyrivka, in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, Sunday April 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Yaroslav Yemelianenko)

However, though the pine forest was badly hit, enough flora survived to bring about the gradual return of nature, thanks also to the absence of human activity.  Moose, wolves, otters, boars, eagles, owls and storks have been sighted in the contaminated area which was gradually abandoned by man: a “reconquest” by a devastated nature which can only be compared to the demilitarized area on the border between the two Koreas . A biodiversity heritage and the example of an ecosystem which after coming back to life now risks being completely compromised. 

A fox in Chernobyl exclusion zone, 2017 @Marco Negri

Chernobyl is yet another example of how woodland fires have become an issue at a global level. Over the past twelve months we have witnessed fire in the Amazon, the destruction of another of the Earth’s “green lungs”  in Siberia, a similar disaster which is often forgotten in Indonesia and the calamitous fires in Australia which have been ongoing since June 2019 . And now Chernobyl: in the current context , there is the risk that arson attacks will also become increasingly difficult to stop due to the weakening of  natural embankments, the fragility of the woodland ecosystems , the unnatural conditions of precipitation and atmospheric temperatures affected by climate change.