Two leading academics share their views with the NIA on the risk posed by the reports of wildfires near the Chernobyl plant, concluding there is no radiobiological risk.
There have been a number of reports concerning wildfires close to the Chernobyl plant that in some cases have resulted in alarmist headlines. These fires are some way from the plant itself and therefore present no danger to it.
The concern is therefore only for combustion of contaminated vegetation. It is now 29 years since the accident, and over time there is a considerable reduction in radioactive contamination of the area due to the physical half-lives of the radioisotopes released.
All the radioactive iodine, which was responsible for the increase in thyroid cancer, is eliminated from the environment within three months, due to the short half-life of 8.1 days for 131-I. The other major contaminant Cs-137, has a half-life of 30 years, and it therefore follows that only half of the original release still remains active in the environment today.
There is no evidence thus far for an increase in any form of cancer other than thyroid cancer, which is caused by exposure to 131-I. This suggests that exposure to Cs-137 has not produced a discernible increase in cancer.
It is possible that some of the remaining contamination may become airborne as the result of these fires, but the dose of radiation will be minimal in comparison with that from the original release.
Indeed, there have previously been forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as well as an experimental fire which was used to determine how much radioactivity would be resuspended. In studies of these real and experimental fires, Ukrainian scientists found that though the air concentration of radionuclides was increased, it remained at very low levels and didn’t present a significant inhalation risk.
The area is still heavily monitored and the data suggest that there has been no increase in the levels of radiation recorded. These fires therefore pose no radiobiological consequences for human health.
Prof. Gerry Thomas
Professor of Molecular Pathology,
Imperial College London
Prof. James Smith
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
University of Portsmouth