Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, May 26, 2011 8:06 pm

It keeps going and going …

I’m a little late to this, but Bill Egnor at Firedoglake reflects on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and raises a disturbing possibility of which I had been unaware:

Chernobyl is a bad as it gets. It was the fire the spread the radioactive materials so far. Graphite burns hot and it took days to put the fire out. In that time radioactive cesium was lofted to the high level winds and spread in a classic fall out cloud. It brought low levels of radiation to all Europe west of the plant. There were even detectable levels of the radiation all the way to the United States. [cont’d.]

Around the plant it was, obviously much worse. Large levels of radioactive iodine were released and exposed populations as far away as Kiev. The levels of thyroid cancer in that part of the world are 400 times the normal level. But radioactive iodine has a very short half live and is gone in a few weeks.

Of more concern is the cesium that was released. Most of it fell within 50 miles or so of the plant. Since that is a quarantine area, that has not been much of a problem. But it has not gone away by any means. It is in the soil or absorbed into the trees in the forest there.

Now Ukrainian forests are rather like the ones in the Western United States, they tend to grow then burn. There has been no major fire in the 25 years since Chernobyl. There also has been almost no forestry work there. This means that the forests around the plant are in the kind of shape where massive fires, the kind that last for months, can occur.

If one of these massive fires happens the trees which have absorbed the cesium will burn, and throw radioactive smoke, very similar to the smoke from the original accident, high into the air. Massive fires like that can create their own weather patterns, and that would mean that once again a plume of radioactivity will head west towards Moscow and the rest of Europe.

It would be dangerous to fight such a fire, again because of the level of radiation in the soil (which would dry and also loft) and the amount of cesium in the smoke. Inhaling that smoke would very bad for your health, to say the least.

This is the legacy of a major nuclear disaster. Buildings and areas can be quarantined but there is really very little that we can do to prevent the spread of long lived radioactive elements once they are in the environment.

I am not enough of an expert on either the nuclear industry or the health risks of radiation to know whether the scenario the writer describes is the kind of deal-killer he thinks it is. I am skeptical. But we’ve also seen, at Chernobyl and at Fukushima, that there’s a certain paucity in the human imagination regarding worst-case scenarios … and that that lack of vision has a body count.


1 Comment

  1. Here in Cumbria the hill-farmers still cannot sell their sheep to be slaughtered for human consumption because the levels of caesium in their carcases are unsafe. That’s a mere 25 years after the disaster. . . . At the time of Fukushima our government’s chief scientific adviser got up and reassured the public with the line that we didn’t need to worry about the Japanese nukes metling down because Chernobyl had had no effect on the UK. Curiously, the public outcry for his resignation simply didn’t materialise . . .

    Comment by Nick — Saturday, May 28, 2011 1:27 pm @ 1:27 pm

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