Even though the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place almost 29 years ago, the nuclear threat is not over. In fact, recent forest fires in Ukraine have caused increased concern for Europe as radioactive soil particles were scattered over the region through the air.
The New Scientist reports that radioactive smoke distributed radiation particles over eastern Europe and were found as far away as Italy and Scandinavia. The radioactive particles were released into the air in a series of three separate forest fires in Ukraine. The forest fires released between two to eight percent of the caesium, some 0.5 PBq, of the radioactive particles in smoke, according to Nikolaos Evangeliou at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and his colleagues. The group has been analysing the impact of forest fires on the nuclear disaster site and region. The results were somewhat startling as the researches say their figures are likely “underestimates.”
Though the amount of radioactive caesium presented from the three fires is minimal, with an average dose for Kiev residents clocking in at just 10 microsieverts of radiation. The dose would be just one percent of the permitted yearly dose of the material. However, the researchers say the release of radioactive material is nothing to take lightly.
“This is very small. But these fires serve as a warning of where these contaminants can go. Should there be a larger fire, quite a bit more could end up on populated areas.”
One major concern of the researchers is the possibility of contaminated food or uneven distribution of radioactive particles.
“The average dose isn’t the problem. Some people will get much more, as fires dump radioactive strontium, plutonium and americium as well as caesium unevenly, and as some foods concentrate these heavy metals, for example caesium in mushrooms.
“The internal dose from ingestion can be significant. The resulting cancers might be hard to spot among many other less-exposed people. “But they will be very significant for those who experience them.”
So why is the radioactive material still close enough to the surface that it would create radioactive smoke? The researchers say that the ecosystem in the area ensures that the top layer of soil has a constant layer of radiation as “trees pick up the radioactive ions, then dead leaves return it to the soil.” The process is unending and the radioactive particles are recycled back to the top layer of soil constantly. This means when a fire overtakes the area, the leaves and soil contain the radioactive materials and are then released in the fire’s smoke.
Many worry that as global warming gains a hold in the area that more forest fires will be expected. This could cause a significant increase in the amount of radioactive particles being spread over much of Europe.