Growing concern about landscape fires in Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant Zone following the armed conflict in Ukraine

Image: Wildfires in areas contaminated with Caesium-137 following Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986.

The Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear catastrophe in 1986 inflicted massive radioactive contamination and colossal impacts on human health and well-being, causing immediate and subsequent deaths, higher cancer rates and premature death. Large areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were contaminated and exclusion zones with forced resettlement of residents took place (Hostert et al., 2011). The ongoing military escalation in Ukraine caused by the military invasion of Russia on February 24th, 2022, affected various parts of Ukraine, including the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Yet, ongoing shelling, soil disturbance by military equipment, intentional and unintentional wildfires may release Caesium-137 from contaminated soils and vegetation. While official news claimed both the presence and absence of active burning in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a group of scientists and remote sensing experts from Greenpeace and GLP members, evaluated the recent wildfire activity by expert visual interpretation of multispectral 10-meter Sentinel-2 satellite imagery employing a novel method for participatory burned area mapping.The analysis revealed at least 7,600 hectares already burnt in the Ukrainian part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone alone from February 24th, 2022 to March 25th, 2022, most in areas highly contaminated with Caesium-137 (see figure below).

The scientists call for halting the armed conflict in Ukraine affecting millions of people . Moreover, monitoring and mapping of wildfires near the Chernobyl disaster zone further raise concern of even more detrimental consequences for human health and environmental implications both in Ukraine and more broadly in neighboring countries through nuclear contamination. The scientists also call for increased monitoring and assessment of the environmental and health implications and broader land system impacts of combat on the Cherynobl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) and beyond. In this regard, land system scientists can play a crucial role in understanding such implications to the environment and to human and societal well-being.

For more details, please contact Alexander Prishchepov,

Hostert, P. et al. Rapid land use change after socio-economic disturbances: the collapse of the Soviet Union versus Chernobyl. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 045201 (2011).