As Russia invades Chernobyl, many fear artillery could spread radioactive dust across the continent

Experts are worried that military incursions could kick up plumes of radioactive dust

By Matthew Rozsa

Published February 24, 2022 5:46PM (EST)

A military vehicle with spaced armour moves past servicemen during tactical drills for Ukrainian Interior Ministry units to practice interoperability while defending a city, urban combat tactics and response to the aftermath of the hostilities in a city, Prypiat, the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, Kyiv Region, northern Ukraine. (Volodymyr Tarasov/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
A military vehicle with spaced armour moves past servicemen during tactical drills for Ukrainian Interior Ministry units to practice interoperability while defending a city, urban combat tactics and response to the aftermath of the hostilities in a city, Prypiat, the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, Kyiv Region, northern Ukraine. (Volodymyr Tarasov/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

On April 26, 1986, an accident in a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant led to the worst nuclear disaster in history. The radioactive fallout covered not only parts of Ukraine but also areas of Belarus and Russia — more than 90,000 square miles — in an area that was quickly labeled an exclusion zone because it was too dangerous to inhabit. Radioactive isotopes caused by the explosion of the fourth reactor started in the sky and settled into the ground, lodging into the organs of people and animals alike.

Although the international community only officially attributes 31 deaths to the crisis, other experts project that thousands of people were directly or indirectly harmed by the radiation. The United Nations estimates that at least 4,000 people died from radiation exposure; millions of others were put at risk. While the aftermath from the incident is still felt in 2022, the international community has at least felt relief that the worst from Chernobyl is over.

As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, the irradiated region around the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor may pose a new threat to the world.

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Russian forces overcame Ukrainian military resistance and captured the plant on Thursday, according to Ukrainian presidential office adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. In a statement to Reuters, Podolyak described the capturing of Chernobyl as "a totally pointless attack by the Russians" that makes it "impossible to say the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe." He added that "this is one of the most serious threats in Europe today," a statement echoed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he tweeted that "our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated." 

By contrast, a Russian security source told the wire service that Russia seized the reactor to send NATO the message that it should not intervene in the conflict. Not everyone bought this explanation; for instance, Harvard professor and former Obama official Juliette Kayyem speculated on Twitter that Chernobyl was captured simply because it is "the shortest route from Russia to Kyiv."

The main source of concern here is radioactive dust, or the nuclear particles that are created by an event such as the Chernobyl accident. Although more than 100 radioactive elements were released into the atmosphere when the fourth reactor exploded in 1986, most of them did not remain radioactive for long by virtue of their short half-lives. The three most dangerous elements were iodine-131, strontium-90 and cesium-137, which respectively have half-lives of eight days, 29 years and 30 years. These isotopes blew up into the air before settling into the ground, and roughly half of the longer-lived isotopes in the area have still not yet decayed. Such fallout is dangerous when it decays while inside one's body; the iodine isotopes, for instance, are linked to thyroid cancer, and cesium isotopes are linked to leukemia.

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From a global health perspective, the prevailing concern currently is that Russian military activity could kick up this radioactive dust from the original accident, perhaps as a result of artillery shelling of nuclear waste collectors or of the abandoned plant itself. This, in turn, could be spread to other places in Europe through the wind, rainfall, construction, human transportation and other day-to-day developments. That is why large sections of the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been closed off since 1986; it remains one of the radioactive places on the planet. Because activities as seemingly innocuous as dredging rivers near the plant can spread radiation, it is reasonable to worry that Russian military aggression in that same area could have a catastrophic effect for the people of Europe.

There is no way to confirm what the Russian military is doing in the contaminated area, according to The Washington Post. Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko has accused the Russian military of battling Ukrainian national guardsmen who were "fighting hard" to protect the storage facilities containing "unsafe nuclear radioactive waste." He added that if artillery hits those facilities, "radioactive nuclear dust can be spread over the territory of Ukraine, Belarus" and the countries of the European Union.

Much effort through history has been taken to protect the landscape in the exclusion area, with some success. Although animals in the area remain more radioactive and more likely to have mutations than those outside of it, species like deer, bison and lynx have managed to flourish. (People who work in the area have even reported having close relationships with the abundant wild dogs there.) The plant itself is covered by a shell known as the New Safe Confinement, which is meant to limit the amount of radioactive material from the destroyed plant that can enter the outside environment. Clean up efforts including construction and monitoring for radiation pollution continue to this day, and people are even allowed to tour Chernobyl — provided they follow rules such as no touching any of the structures.

That said, the victims of the Chernobyl disaster had a number of health issues including acute radiation syndrome (ARS), the symptoms of which include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and skin damage. There are also reports indicating that people who were exposed to radiation had higher instances of the radiation-linked diseases like thyroid cancer. On top of that, there was a significant mental health pandemic as a result of that crisis, as people in the exposed area frequently felt depressed because they believed they had health issues and their life expectancy had been shortened.

The international community has condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The world's leading economies in G7 issued a joint statement on Thursday saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has reintroduced war to the European continent. He has put himself on the wrong side of history." Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the largest military action to occur in Europe since World War II, and continues what former American ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told Salon in 2018 is Putin's plan for "the end of the liberal international order" involving "the breakup of states as you have in the UK, the breakup of alliances and NATO, the breakup of the European Union."

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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