Forest fires burning for over a week in northern Ukraine have reached the outskirts of the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, according to the BBC.
A tour operator servicing the area suggests wildfires have reached Pripyat, an abandoned city less than two miles from the closed power plant. On April 10, NASA satellites revealed the extent of the burning in the northern Ukraine, with vast smoke plumes billowing into Belarus.
The Unit Four Reactor at Chernobyl exploded on the morning of April 26, 1986, blowing the roof off the reactor building. Vast amounts of radiation leaked into the sky and the surrounding land over the days that followed and, eventually, a 1,000-square-mile Exclusion Zone was established to restrict public access.
As the fires move through the forests surrounding the site, they’re stirring up some of the radiation that settled upon the soil and plant life in the wake of the explosion. On Monday, Greenpeace Russia said the fires are the largest ever in the Exclusion Zone, and a representative, Rashid Alimov, said the wind could disperse radioactive material more widely. “We’re hoping for rain,” he told Reuters.
Background levels of radiation appear to be unchanged, according to Anton Herashchenko, deputy minister at the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Ukrainian authorities suggest there is no threat to the plant itself or storage facilities for nuclear waste nearby. However, studies have demonstrated wildfires can transport radioactive atoms over great distances in the Exclusion Zone.
Over 400 firefighters are trying to prevent the spread of fires across the Zone and any further advance toward the Chernobyl nuclear plant. “We have been working all night, digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” said Kateryna Pavlova, acting head of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management.
The nuclear plant is no longer active, with its three reactors being shut down between 1991 and 2000. In 2015, decommissioning work began on reactors one, two and three and is expected to take 10 years. The damaged reactor four, originally entombed in an enormous concrete sarcophagus, is now covered by a steel shelter, known as the New Safe Confinement, which was placed over the reactor in 2017.
A 27-year-old resident has been accused of deliberately starting the blaze.