How Radioactive Smoke from Chernobyl's Fires May Have Reached the US
June 9, 2015 Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
On April 28 -- two days after the 29th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster -- a fire erupted 11 miles from the damaged reactor ande blazed through the Red Forest -- a contaminated region inside Chernobyl's "exclusion zone." Radioactive smoke poured into the sky and, on May 7, traces of the radioactive plume were detected over the West Coast, raising concerns that cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium isotopes were being carried in the storms moving eastward over the Rockies.
(June 8, 2015) -- When a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded on April 26, 1986, the detonation propelled a radioactive cloud high into the atmosphere. The fallout left approximately 38.6 square miles of Soviet and European territory significantly contaminated.
(The United Nations has recognized 31 deaths among plant workers and firefighters directly linked to the explosion but Greenpeace believes another 100,000 have died from cancers caused by radioactive fallout.
The crumbling concrete "Sarcophagus" erected to contain the damaged reactor is now being replaced by a 20,000-ton steel "helmet." Set for completion by the end of 2015, technical problems have delayed completion until late 2017, at the earliest. The $2.2 billion enclosure is only expected to last 100 years.)
On April 28 -- just two days after the 29th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster -- a fire erupted 11 miles from the damaged reactor, prompting Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to warn that "the high flames and sudden gusts of wind mean there is a serious risk that the fire could spread."
The blaze, which broke out only 62 miles from the Ukrainian capital Kiev, triggered an emergency fire-fighting response by police and National Guard. The blaze came within 30 kilometers of the abandoned nuclear plant and burned through the Red Forest, a contaminated region inside Chernobyl's "exclusion zone."
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited the area and assured reporters: "The situation is under control."
Ukraine nuclear officials told Agence France-Presse: "The level of radiation at the Chernobyl plant has not changed." But radiation levels at the plant weren't the concern. The worry was what would happen as the fire burned through the "radioactive forests" downwind from the damaged plant.
Ukrainian firefighters and government officials claimed the fires inside the exclusion zone had been extinguished by May 2 and posed no radiation threat. Local residents were not convinced. "No one tells us the truth," one woman told RT News reporter Paula Slier. "Nobody told us when there was a disaster in 1986. We will never hear the truth from the government."
When background radiation in the region reportedly rose to 21 microroentgen per hour (the "safe level" is 50 microroentgen per hour) officials assured villagers there was no radiation threat. But Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist working on the Chernobyl cleanup, told RT News: "The soil is contaminated by radioactive elements. And not only soil, but plants, trees."
If these forests, which have been absorbing radioactivity for nearly 30 years, catch fire, Bandazhevsky warned, radioactive particles could be released in the smoke and "may spread with wind over long distances."
Typically, radiation inside the Red Forest ranges from ten milliröntgens per hour to a high of one Roentgen per hour. More than 90% of this radioactivity is concentrated in the soil. Concentrations of Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 are particularly troubling because these isotopes have half-lives of around 30 years. C-137 in the soil's surface is readily absorbed by vegetation and trees.
The evacuation of human settlements following the Chernobyl disaster left behind a contradiction: a lush landscape filled with a proliferation of plants and wildlife inhabiting one of the most radioactive regions in the world.
The flora and fauna inside Red Forest's "Radiological Reserve" have been dramatically affected by the accident with reports of stunted plants in the area. A 1996 BBC documentary discovered birds suffering from stunted tail feathers while other research has documented partial albinism in swallows and birds with various beak mutations.
In addition to reports of birds and animals manifesting strange mutations, scientists are also aware of cases of children born in the fallout zone who are suffering from mental retardation, deformed limbs and grotesque tumors.
Chernobyl Mutations (November 27, 2011) – Images by Paul Fusco at Magnum Photos.
While Ukraine officials insist that smoke from the fires posed no danger, independent satellite and ground station monitors tracked the plumes from Chernobyl's "radioactive forests" spreading across large swaths of Eastern Europe, Asia and Alaska. On May 8, the plume reportedly began sweeping over Canada and the West Coast of the US.
An online image from the HYSPLIT atmospheric dispersion model (pictured above) captured the spread of this plume. As of 2 PM Eastern time on May 7, the HYSPLIT model showed the smoke hovering over northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, where it was currently raining. Leading trails of smoke could be seen advancing over northwest Washington, over the California cities of Salinas, Fresno, and Santa Barbara, and on to Las Vegas Nevada.
On Friday, May 8, traces of the smoke plume were reportedly detected in the rainfaill near Fresno, with potentially radioactive aerosols falling as snow in the nearby mountains. There was additional concern that the plume might become "entrained" in a snowstorm that was sweeping towards the Rockies. (See below.) That massive storm front later moved eastward across the northern plains, up to the Great Lakes and on into Canada.
See radiation levels: http://www.uradmonitor.com
In a May 3, 2015 interview with RT News, Kevin Kamps (a nuclear waste expert with the US watchdog group, Beyond Nuclear) noted that, while the Red Forest conflagration posed a significant threat to the planet, it was not a unique event. "There have been many [Chernobyl] fires over the years," Kamps explained.
A team at the University of South Carolina studied the five largest post-Chernobyl fires (in 1992, 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2010) and concluded that the last three blazes alone "remobilized 8 percent of the original cesium 137 contamination back into the atmosphere."
Kamps argued that Chernobyl's "radioactive forests" pose a continuing risk. Each of these fires releases the cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium isotopes captured in the forest's the bark and leaves back into the air.
Moreover, the threat would continue "with climate change, with drought, with the death of the forest from the radioactivity in the first place, the fact that the litter, the leaves and the dead trees will not decay properly, again because of radioactivity."
According to Kamps, the continuing danger from these plumes is that "anyone downwind who breathes it, could ingest these poisons and that can result in cancer or other diseases." Kamps expressed concern over reports that firefighters complained about "tasting metal and feeling a tingling on their skin due to these radioactive fires. That is an indication of significantly high levels of radioactive contamination."
Because of this, Kamps believes "firefighters themselves need to have respiratory protection" and "certain areas of the forest may need clear cutting" to prevent rad-plumes from circling the planet in the future.
Meanwhile, it doesn't take massive forest fires to cause massive releases of radioisotopes from Ukraine's contaminated land. Every spring, when the snow and ice begin to melt, water-soluble cesium seeps into groundwater, ponds and rivers where it poses a threat to drinking water.
Kamps argues that containing the threat of the damaged Chernobyl plant and mitigating the risk of future fires in the exclusion zone is "an international issue and Ukraine should not be left alone with it. Because the risks are international -- downwind and downstream -- resources should be made to deal with those threats."
Evidence that the smoke plumes from Chernobyl's radioactive forests wound up spreading over the US, serves to bring this argument home.
A Radioactive Trail over the US
As the Chernobyl smoke spread over Canada and the Western US, the US government's poorly maintained RadNet air-monitoring system began to record a flurry of unusual spikes. RadNet measures alpha and beta radiation in Counts Per Minute (CPM).
As the smoke drifted over the US from west to east and slowly spread across the southern states, RadNet's air sampling stations detected "four-month highs" in Albuqueque, New Mexico (260 CPM on May 7), San Bernardino, California (610 CPM on May 8 – 20 times normal), Tucson, Arizona (435 CPM on May 12), Montgomery, Alabama (365 CPM on May 12). Grand Rapids, Michigan (175 CPM on May 15), Fort Wayne, Indiana (340 CPM on May 24) Madison, Wisconsin (350 CPM on May 25), Dallas, Texas (245 CPM on May 28) and Buffalo, New York (150 CPM on May 30).
The evidence might have been more compelling if the underfunded RadNet system had not been permitted to slowly crumble into disrepair. As the rad-watchers at EnviroReporter.com note, the federal government's RadNet systems have been allowed to break down and remain unrepaired in a number of major cities, including Los Angeles, Riverside, California, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Utah, Augusta, Georgia, St. Paul, Minnesota, Worcester, Massachusetts, Syracuse, New York, and New York City.
The latest available radiation reports from RadCast.org extend only to May 6, just before the Chernobyl smoke began its trek across the US mainland. Still. the reports for the four preceding weeks display a troubling uniformity. All 52 radiation tracking stations from the 23 states and British Columbia, recorded sustained CPM radiation spikes that measured anywhere from 50% to 66% above normal.
And, let us not forget the continuing risks posed by the four reactors at Fukushima damaged by a quake-driven tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. On January 31, 2015, a fast-moving storm showered Los Angeles with a torrent of rain that contained dangerous levels beta radiation. Radiation monitors located in Santa Monica, on the western edge of the LA basin, detected levels of radiation 3.3 times higher than background.
According to EnviroReporter.com, this was "the hottest precipitation detected at the station since March 2012, when ocean mists topped 500 percent of background."
Here is a live link to EnviroRepoter's Santa Monica radiation detection station: