Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2015
By John LaForge
The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster was 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 radioactive fallout.
Government warnings of Chernobyl’s dispersed cancer agents are nearly forgotten today, but a May 14, 1986 bulletin from the US Environmental Protection Agency (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.”
A week later, 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, May 22, 1986)
The AP 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 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 [April 8].”
Wildfires put contamination back in the air
Chernobyl exploded and burned out of control for weeks. The French Nuclear Energy Agency’s “2002 Update of Chernobyl,” noted that “[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 three 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, an area of 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 the 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.
About the 2010 wildfires, Time magazine reported 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 radiation monitoring of water and milk on the West Coast a mere 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.”
“Eight percent” of radioactive fallout re-suspended—but eight percent of what?
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. 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 eight percent of the original amount of cesium-137 released by the 1986 disaster—the world’s 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, the New York Times reported April 6, 2015.
In 2006, The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH, by Ian Fairlie and David Sumner) concluded that about 30 percent of the reactor’s radioactivity was distributed over the reactor building and surrounding areas and about 1–2 percent was ejected into the atmosphere. The sum total of radioactivity released was about 324.3 million curies. All of the reactor’s radioactive gases (xenon and krypton) were released.
In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum—comprised of more than 100 scientists, eight UN agencies and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine—estimated that the total release over the first 10 days reached 378.3 million curies. (Bob Edwards, “Major UN report counts human cost of Chernobyl,” New Scientist, Sept. 5, 2005.)
The Lawrence Livermore National Lab suggested in 1986 that 50 percent of the core’s radioactivity was spewed—4.5 billion curies, according to Science, June 13, 1986. In 1991, Vladimir Chernousenko, a fellow of the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and chief scientific supervisor of “clean up” in the 10-kilometer zone around the demolished reactor, noted that independent experts estimated that 80 percent of the reactor’s radioactivity escaped—over 6.4 billion curies.
According to Mousseau, forests covered 50 percent the Chernobyl exclusion zone before 1986, but trees and brush now cover 70 percent of the no-go area. Mousseau’s team reports that as climate change increasingly heats and dries the region, wildfires are expected to rage more often and more fiercely.
Asked by the Times what the consequences of this dispersion of radioactive materials might be, 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.”