SWITZERLAND, APRIL 18 – As the world’s attention remains fixated on the coronavirus(COVID-19), which has killed over 145,000 victims, another crisis may be emerging in Eastern Europe that the world has overlooked.
Fires that burned near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site in Ukraine for over a week were put out by firefighters and rain earlier this week, but a new report finds elevated levels of radiation in the area as well as the capitol city of Kiev.
According to the BBC, acrid smoke from wildfires, including blazes near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant, has blanketed Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, making its air pollution among the worst in the world.
Kyiv’s pollution now ranks alongside that of several Chinese cities, Swiss monitoring group IQAir reports.
The coronavirus lockdown is keeping most Kyiv residents at home anyway.
Ukraine’s health ministry says radiation levels remain normal and Chernobyl faces no immediate threat.
At one point on Thursday, according to the IQAir index, Kyiv’s air pollution was the worst in the world.
The fires burned into the exclusion zone around the power plant that famously melted down in 1986, leading to the worst nuclear accident in history. The blazes burned right up to within a kilometer of the plant itself.
A report released Wednesday by the French Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute (IRSN) shows that samples taken of the air in Kiev had elevated levels of radioactive cesium 137, which peaked around April 10 – 11. During this period the observed levels of the radioactive isotope were almost an order of magnitude higher than at the time the blaze was just getting going.
Structures now contain the radioactivity. But damage to those structures could again release contamination, environmentalists warn.
They say there is no place in the modern world for the burning of fields — especially near the site of the largest nuclear accident the world has known.
“Our society is on the verge of development when we can’t afford to preserve such extreme traditions anymore,” Sergiy Zibtsev, head of the Regional Eastern Europe Fire Monitoring Center, told NBC News.
For the moment, though, it is not nuclear contamination that is bothering the residents of Kyiv, 80 miles to the south. It is the smoke from the dozens of fires, some of which had spread by April 3 to the containment zone.
The only way people under coronavirus lockdown in Kyiv have been able to breathe fresh air has been to open the windows. But over the last 11 days, the air has tasted bitter and dried the nostrils. And in the distance, residents can see the smoke rising into the sky.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that residents breathed fresh air, as the rains poured down and some 400 firefighters tackled the fires.
According to ABC, these fires were no accident — they were set by villagers who were clearing their land for planting, burning the grass away just as their forefathers had done.
They illustrate the tension that can exist between age-old traditions and modern imperatives. The question for authorities is this: how to reconcile the wish of farmers and others to continue a practice that may have been going on for generations with the need to contain radioactive waste for years to come?
The Chernobyl nuclear accident took place April 26, 1986, near Pripyat, in the north of the country, which was then part of the Soviet Union. A reactor core fire, sparked by an uncontrolled reaction during a routine test, released radioactive contamination into the air for 10 days. And that contamination rained down on parts of the Soviet Union and Western Europe.
Firefighters have been tackling wildfires in the Chernobyl zone and in areas nearer to Kyiv, and there was a new flare-up fanned by strong winds on Thursday. But the emergency services say fire has not spread to the Chernobyl power station area.
The plant is surrounded by a 30km (19 mile)-radius exclusion zone, created in 1986 because of radioactive hotspots. It includes the abandoned settlement of Pripyat.
The health ministry has urged Kyiv’s roughly 3.7m people to stay indoors and close windows, Reuters news agency reports.
The ministry warns that the smog can cause headaches, coughs, difficulty breathing and inflammation.