Artillery types

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

On April 26, 1986, an accident at 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 parts 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. The radioactive isotopes caused by the explosion of the fourth reactor started in the sky and settled in the ground, lodged in the organs of people and animals.

Although the international community officially attributes only 31 deaths to the crisis, other experts predict that thousands of people have been directly or indirectly harmed by the radiation. The United Nations estimates that at least 4,000 people have died from radiation exposure; millions more were endangered. While the aftermath of the incident is still being felt in 2022, the international community is at least relieved that the worst of Chernobyl is over.

However, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the irradiated region around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear reactor could pose a new threat to the world.

RELATED: Here’s What Would Happen To Earth If A Nuclear War Erupted Between The West And Russia

Russian forces defeated Ukrainian military resistance and captured the factory on Thursday, according to Ukrainian presidential office adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. In a statement to Reuters, Podolyak described the takeover of Chernobyl as “a totally unnecessary attack by the Russians” that makes it “impossible to say that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe”. He added that “this is one of the most serious threats in Europe today”, a statement echoes by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he tweeted that “our defenders give their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 does not happen again”.

In contrast, a Russian security source told the news service that Russia seized the reactor to send a message to NATO that it should not interfere in the conflict. Not everyone bought this explanation; for example, Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard professor and former Obama official 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 nuclear particles created by an event such as the Chernobyl accident. Although more than 100 radioactive elements were released into the atmosphere during the explosion of the fourth reactor in 1986, most of them did not remain radioactive for long due to their short half-lives. The three most dangerous elements were iodine-131, strontium-90 and cesium-137, which have half-lives of eight days, 29 years and 30 years respectively. These isotopes exploded in the air before settling in the ground, and about half of the long-lived isotopes in the area have not yet rotted. Such fallout is dangerous when it disintegrates inside his body; iodine isotopes, for example, are linked to thyroid cancer, and cesium isotopes are linked to leukemia.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon The Vulgar Scientist’s weekly newsletter.

From a global health perspective, the current concern is that Russian military activity could stir up this radioactive dust from the initial accident, possibly as a result of artillery bombardment nuclear waste collectors or the abandoned factory itself. This, in turn, could spread to other places in Europe through wind, precipitation, construction, human transport and other daily developments. This is why large sections of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have been closed since 1986; it remains one of the radioactive places on the planet. Since seemingly innocuous activities such as the dredging of rivers near the plant can spread radiation, it is reasonable to fear that Russian military aggression in this same area could have a catastrophic effect on Europeans.

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 accused the Russian military of fighting Ukrainian national guards who were “fighting hard” to protect storage facilities containing “hazardous nuclear radioactive waste”. He added that if artillery hit these facilities, “radioactive nuclear dust could spread on the territory of Ukraine, Belarus” and countries of the European Union.

Throughout history, many efforts have been made to protect the landscape in the exclusion zone, with some success. Although animals in the region remain more radioactive and more susceptible to mutations than those outside, species like deer, bison and lynx have managed to thrive. (People who work in the area even reported having close ties with the there are many wild dogs.) The plant itself is covered in a shell known as New Safe Containment, which is intended to limit the amount of radioactive material from the destroyed plant that can enter the outside environment. Cleanup efforts including construction and monitoring of radioactive pollution continues to this day, and people are even allowed to visit Chernobyl – provided they follow rules like not touching any of the structures.

That said, the Chernobyl disaster victims had a number of health conditions, including acute radiation syndrome (ARS), the symptoms of which include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and skin lesions. There are also reports that people exposed to radiation had higher cases of radiation-related illnesses like thyroid cancer. In addition to this there was a major mental health pandemic as a result of this crisis, as people in the exposed area often felt depressed because they thought they had health problems and their life expectancy had been shortened.

The international community has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The main world economies of the G7 have published a joint statement Thursday, declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has brought war back 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 take place in Europe since World War II, and continues what former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told Salon in 2018 is Putin’s plan for “the end of the liberal international order” involving “breaking up states like you did in the UK, breaking up alliances and NATO, breaking up the European Union.”

Learn more about the Ukrainian conflict: