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Chernobyl threatens Europe again! Experts worry forest fires could spew toxic fumes over continent

Emergency workers in the region are scrambling to build firebreaks around the sarcophagus covering the exposed nuclear plant in a desperate attempt to curb a potential radiation leak
UPDATED APR 13, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Wildfires in and around the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine are reportedly inching towards the nuclear reactor, as experts fear that this could lead to toxic air enveloping Europe. Emergency workers in the region are scrambling to build firebreaks around the sarcophagus covering the exposed nuclear plant in a desperate attempt to curb a potential radiation leak.

The fires in the exclusion zone have been raging for nearly nine days, with a recent report stating that the radiation levels in the center of the wildfire had spiked nearly 17 times more than the normal reading. Experts fear that if the fire is not contained in time, the flamed could reach abandoned trucks and other vehicles deeply contaminated from the clean-up after the notorious 1986 nuclear plant explosion, which would result in the emanation of toxic fumes. 

There are also fears abound that the radiation in the ground in and around the "dead zone" could spread to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and other populated areas in the region. 

A sign at the edge of a forest warns of radiation contamination and prohibits the picking of berries and mushrooms on April 4, 2016, near Chachersk, Belarus (Getty Images)

“The fire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is beginning to get close to the sarcophagus,” Russian channel NTV reported, according to The Sun. The outlet also added that eyewitness recently relayed how they put the flames from spreading till around “a couple of kilometers” from the shut plant.

"At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained," Kateryna Pavlova, a senior official involved in the battle to extinguish the forest fire admitted. Reports state that in an attempt to curb the spread of the fire, over 300 people and 85 pieces of equipment have been deployed daily by Ukraine, one of the poorest countries of Europe, which is also battling against the deadly coronavirus. 

The State Agency for Management of the Exclusion Zone has reportedly ordered three Antonov planes (AN-32P) and two MI-8 helicopters to airdrop over 250 tons of water onto the rapidly-spreading blaze. 

The former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including destroyed reactor four (C), as well as the New Safe Confinement structure (R) that will one day enclose the remains of reactor four, stand behind the abandoned city of Pripyat on September 30, 2015, near Pripyat, Ukraine (Getty Images)

The wildfire, which is raging in an almost uninhabited 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, was likely caused by human negligence, according to Ukrainian authorities. It is believed that the fires were started by grass being burnt on nearby farmland, which spread onto nearby trees in the exclusion zone.

The worst known nuclear power accident sent shockwaves across the world in 1986. The workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine, were conducting a technical test on the night of April 25, 1986, to check security measures at the plant by simulating a station blackout due to a complete power failure. However, a combination of flaws in the process led to uncontrolled reactor conditions. One of the staff members panicked and pushed the emergency stop button and, within nine seconds, the reactor in the fourth block which held almost 200 tonnes of radioactive fuel exploded, emitting large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

Although the immediate death toll of the disaster was only 31, experts state that an additional 4,000 people might eventually die due to radiation exposure. The explosion released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and its impact was also felt in nearby countries, including Scandinavia, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, France and the UK.

Read more on Chernobyl forest fires here.