By HEATHER BRADFORD
April 26 marks the 34th anniversary of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history. By some estimates, the ruins of the Chernobyl reactor will remain highly radioactive for 20,000 years. Decades after the catastrophe, the dangers of radiation persist as forest fires rampage across the exclusion zone. The recent forest fires are only the latest in recent years to threaten the region with radioactive ash and smoke. This problem is compounded by the dual impacts of climate change and capitalist profit motives.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster occurred in the early morning of April 26th, 1986, when a safety check to test if the uranium 235-fueled reactors could remain cool during a power outage went catastrophically wrong. At the time, there were four graphite-moderated nuclear reactors at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, with two more under construction.
The reactors were situated two miles from Pripyat, a Soviet city of 50,000 people. Pripyat was constructed in 1970 with amenities such as quality schools, a supermarket, and sports stadium. The reactors were nine miles away from Chernobyl, a city of 12,000. In all, there were over 115,000 people living within an 18.6 mile radius of the power plant and five million people living in contaminated areas of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
During the fateful test, Reactor Four experienced a meltdown, resulting in two explosions that unleashed 400 times the radiation of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The accident shrouded 77,000 square miles of Europe and Eurasia in radiation.
It took 10 days for emergency workers to extinguish the graphite-fueled fire, resulting in the deaths of 28 workers from acute radiation syndrome in the months immediately after the accident. Over 200,000 people were mobilized to clean up the disaster, exposing these liquidation workers to high levels of radiation. In all, 600,000 people in the Soviet Union were subsequently exposed to high levels of radiation, including radioactive isotopes such as iodine-131, plutonium-239, strontium-90, cesium-134, and cesium-137, which were unleashed during the explosion.
As a result, there have been 20,000 thyroid cancer cases between 1991 and 2015 in people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the accident. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986 and another 220,000 people were later evacuated and resettled. A 30 kilometer (approximately 18.6 miles) exclusion zone was established around the reactor.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, trees near the reactor died off, becoming what was called a “Red Forest” to denote the russet tone of dead pine. In the decades since, the exclusion zone has become a refuge for returned wildlife and a collection of desolate ghost towns slowly vanishing into the overgrown forest.
The cautionary tale of Chernobyl does not end with the return of nature or the story of countless generations tasked with stewardship over the sarcophagus encased Reactor Four. Recent wildfires threaten to release Chernobyl’s radiation. According to NASA Earth Observatory, wildfires in the exclusion zone began in early April, and firefighters have been working to put out the blaze since April 4. The impacted areas include Denysovets, Kotovsky, and Korogodsky forests.
On April 8, the fires blew towards Kiev, which is located about 60 miles to the south. On April 9, people were evacuated from the village of Poliske. Poliske is a sparsely inhabited village located within the exclusion zone. A few hundred people, mostly elderly women in their 70s or 80s, reside illegally within the exclusion zone. According to BBC News, conflict in the Donbass region has sent some families to seek safety in the area just outside of the exclusion zone, where the housing is the cheapest in Ukraine. The New York Times stated that as of Saturday, April 11, 400 firefighters had been deployed to the area and 8600 acres had burned the previous week. The article further mentioned that the blaze has increased radiation levels in Russia and Belarus.
Live Science reported that the fire is near the abandoned village of Vladimirovka. According to Ukraine’s Ecological Inspection Service, radiation readings near the blaze are 2.3 microsievert per hour. Typically, the exclusion zone’s ambient radiation is .14 microsievert per hour and .5 microsievert per hour is the threshold considered safe for humans. This calls into question the safety of firefighters working to extinguish the blaze as well as the people living in the region.
At the moment, fires are not located near the entombed reactor. However, uranium-238, cesium-137 and other radionuclides were jettisoned from Reactor Four and have since been absorbed by vegetation and dirt. Fires can unleash these from the environment, and ash condenses the radionuclides sequestered within vegetation. NASA Earth Observatory stated that smoke plumes can carry radiation long distances and that the severity of wildfires has only increased over the years. According to a study published in Ecological Monographs by Timothy Mousseau of University of South Carolina, wildfires that broke out in 2002, 2008, 2010 redistributed 8% of cesium-137 released by the original Chernobyl disaster. Wildfires in 2015 came a mere 12 to 15 miles from Chernobyl’s reactors.
The most recent wildfire has been attributed to local farming practices, wherein fields are burned in spring and fall. While this may contribute to fires, climate change is certainly the main culprit. A report released by the Atlantic Council in January 2020 noted that the 2019-2020 winter in Ukraine was mild with little snowfall. According to the report, 2019 was the warmest year on record for Kiev and the yearly average temperature in Ukraine was 2.9 degrees Celsius higher than average. In 2019, 36 temperature records were broken. Last year, there was 25% less precipitation than average. Droughts have nearly doubled over the last 20 years in Ukraine. In 2015, an article in The New York Times anticipated increased wildfires in the exclusion zone due to drier conditions. Likewise, in 2015 New Scientist reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted more fires near Chernobyl in the future.
Although climate change driven droughts are one of the catalysts for the fires, radiation itself contributes to the problem. Radiation slows the decay of leaf litter and inhibits growth of microorganisms, which creates more fuel for fires. In the absence of people, forests have expanded, which also generates more combustible material. The danger is amplified by the fact that local firefighters have seven times fewer crews and equipment than elsewhere in Ukraine. The IPCC predicted a similar outcome for Fukushima, Japan, which also has significant forests. They also posited that there is no threshold of radiation with zero effect. Climate change driven draughts, expanded forests, slow decay, few local resources, and strained water resources to fight fires create a recipe for disaster.
Behind the climate crisis is capitalism itself. All manner of environmental problems can be traced back to the profit motive in capitalism. The drive for lower wages, unsafe working conditions, fewer environmental regulations, the endless creation of waste, the lack of storage for the waste created, the generation of pollution itself, the shuttling of hazardous production and wastes to the third world and oppressed communities, the anarchy of too much production, and the insatiable need for growth are all connected to endless drive for profits. Therefore, sustainability and safety are anathema to capitalism.
In the context of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, logging trees within the exclusion zone garners tens of millions of dollars in profits. Since 2004, limited amounts of timber can be cut from the exclusion zone as long as it is scanned for radiation. Some 90% of this timber is used for furniture. According to a January 2020 article in Al Jazeera, fires within the exclusion zone are started purposefully to justify the sale of timber. In a report released after the 2015 wildfires, Mykola Tomenko, head of Ukraine’s parliamentary environmental commission, stated that fires can conceal illegal logging. Two-thirds of illegal profits derived from the exclusion zone are from timber. In 2007, state inspectors also found radiation contaminated charcoal sold in Ukrainian supermarkets. While the more recent fires have not been connected to the timber industry, the search for profits brings capitalists to the radioactive wilds of the exclusion zone to extract resources without regard for the impact on consumers or the threat of unleashed radiation.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident is a horror story in the closing chapter of the Soviet Union. It is a tale that will last for thousands of years, written in elements with the potential to outlive humanity. If there is a moral of the story, it is that nuclear power is dangerous. Despite the threats, however, there is little motive within capitalism to mitigate the dangers. The only motive, as always, is the profit motive.
Fires will certainly revisit Chernobyl and potentially visit Fukushima, once again spreading radiation. Beyond Chernobyl, wildfires have threatened the Hanford Site, a former nuclear production facility in Washington State several times. In 2000, the Department of Energy declared an emergency when fires neared a building where nuclear waste was stored. In 2017, a wildfire burned part of the Hanford Site, though no buildings were threatened. Again, in 2019, wildfires burned more than 40,000 acres near the site. The Hanford Nuclear Waste Site is the largest nuclear waste dump in the U.S. and contains 56 million gallons of radioactive waste.
The danger of aging nuclear reactors in the United States, the question of where nuclear waste is stored, the connection to terrifying weapons of war, and the catastrophic consequences when things go awry are just a few of the many reasons why nuclear energy must be nationalized and ultimately abolished.