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IPPNW Germany Press Release

Chernobyl is burning

04/24/2020 This Sunday, April 26, is the 34th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. For three weeks now, severe forest fires have been blazing just a few kilometers away from the reactor buildings. On the occasion of the anniversary of the nuclear disaster, IPPNW Germany is calling for the earliest possible phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany and a worldwide energy revolution. The pediatrician and co-chairman of IPPNW Germany, Dr. Alex Rosen, looks at the current situation with concern: "In these days around the Chernobyl anniversary we commemorate the many millions of victims of the largest nuclear disaster in human history. At the same time, our thoughts are with those currently trying to bring the forest fires under control in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the people of Ukraine who must fear that their country will once again be covered by the radioactive legacy of the nuclear industry.

The half-life of radioactive caesium-137, which rained down across Europe in spring 1986, is 30 years. In the Bavarian forest and in parts of Austria and the Czech Republic, wild boars, berries and mushrooms are still so heavily irradiated that their consumption would significantly increase the risk of cancer. However, the situation in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is much more serious. Large quantities of high- and medium-level radioactive debris from the explosion and the fires that lasted for weeks in makeshift storage facilities are still rotting away over an area of around 100,000 hectares. In the immediate vicinity of the sarcophagus surrounding the damaged reactor 4, the spent fuel rods of reactors 1-3 are also stored in above-ground cooling ponds.

The forest fires of the last three weeks are stirring up radioactive particles from the forest floor, threatening the power supply of the reactor buildings and cooling ponds and have engulfed the nearby capital Kiev in heavy clouds of smoke for days. No relevant increased radiation levels have yet been measured outside the restricted zone, only an approximately hundredfold increase in the concentration of radioactive caesium-137 in the air of Kiev (data from the Central Geophysical Observatory in Kiev show an increase in the caesium-137 concentration from around 6 μBq/m3 to 700 μBq/m3 on 10-11 April), which is still well below the legal limits, however.

"Radiobiologically, there is no threshold below which radioactivity would be harmless," says Rosen: "Any additional radiation dose, no matter how small, increases the risk of dying from diseases such as cancer, strokes or heart attacks. The danger to people in Ukraine and Belarus may still be relatively low, but that only applies as long as the forest fires do not spread to highly contaminated parts of the exclusion zone. It is a serious situation and a completely unwelcome reminder of the time of the nuclear meltdown exactly 34 years ago. Like back then, one can only hope that the fire-fighting efforts are be successful and that the wind does not turn."

In contrast to 1986, there is still no danger for Germany from radioactive clouds from Chernobyl despite the current forest fires. Although wind distribution patterns of the French radiation protection institute IRSN show a spread of the smoke across Europe, the concentrations of smoke and radiation particles are still so low that a relevant increase in the radiation dose outside the exclusion zone has not yet been measured. How the situation will develop in the coming weeks depends to a large extent on whether the fires can be extinguished in time before they reach highly radioactive areas.

After two weeks of unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fires, the Ukrainian government has received international support in recent days - including from Germany. Now the fire-fighting efforts have been stepped up and thousands of additional firefighters have been ordered into the exclusion zone. "However, they are not sufficiently protected for this operation from the greatly increased radiation levels on site and we are therefore concerned that they will pay for their courageous efforts with their health in the medium term," said Rosen. Last week, the Ukrainian State Agency for Restricted Areas published air readings from the Chernobyl reactor site, which showed strongly increased caesium-137 concentrations of 180,000 μBq/m3, more than 250 times higher than at the same time in Kiev, where residents were advised to stay in their homes and keep their windows closed.

In 1986, young people were also sent to Chernobyl for clean-up and fire-fighting operations without adequate protective equipment. At that time, more than 800,000 so-called liquidators from all over the Soviet Union were brought into the exclusion zone to remove lumps of contaminated graphite with bare hands, and to fight the fires inside the reactor core. The majority of them paid a high price for their deployment: an marked increase incidence of strokes, heart attacks, cancer, blindness and other radiation-related diseases was observed among the liquidators at a young age. Male Ukrainian liquidators die about five times as often as their peers. (see IPPNW Germany / PSR report "30 years of life with Chernobyl - 5 years of life with Fukushima" of 2016).

"Statistically, there has been one nuclear disaster with a meltdown every 10.7 years in the last four decades. Fukushima is just 9 years ago. It's only a matter of time before the next nuclear disaster occurs. The next Chernobyl, the next Fukushima, could happen anywhere - even here in Europe. The accident-prone reactors at Doel, Tihange, Temelin, Beznau or Fessenheim would all be in the immediate vicinity of Germany, but nuclear reactors will continue to be operated in this country until 2022. The next Chernobyl could also happen at Gundremmmingen," said Rosen.

IPPNW is calling for a move away from harmful fossil and nuclear energies and towards renewable energies, intelligent storage solutions and energy efficiency.  "Nuclear energy is demonstrably not a solution to the energy problems and challenges of the 21st century - we don't need Chernobyl forest fires to remind us of that," IPPNW Germany's co-chairman Rosen explained.


Other resources:

Angelika Wilmen, press spokeswoman of IPPNW Germany, Phone: +49 (0)30-69807415, e-mail: wilmen[at]ippnw.de


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