Nicholas A. Beresford, Catherine L. Barnett, Sergii Gashchak, Valery Kashparov, Serhii I. Kirieiev, Sviatoslav Levchuk, Valeriia Morozova, James T. Smith, Michael D. Wood. 2021. Wildfires in the Chornobyl exclusion zone-Risks and consequences. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.4424 (OPEN ACCESS).
This article is part of the special series “Ecological consequences of wildfires.” The series documents the impacts of large-scale wildfires in many areas of the globe on biodiversity and ecosystem conditions in both terrestrial and aquatic eco-systems, the capacity for systems to recover, and management practices needed to prevent such destruction in the future.
Following the 1986 Chornobyl accident, an area approaching 5000 km2 surrounding the nuclear plant was abandoned, creating the Chornobyl exclusion zone (CEZ). Although this area likely contains the most radioactive terrestrial ecosystem on earth, the absence of humans and associated activities for nearly 35 years since the accident has resulted in increases in wildlife numbers. Both the Belarussian and Ukrainian components of the CEZ are now designated as nature reserves; together they form one of Europe's largest protected areas and have been described as an iconic example of rewilding. Forests and former agricultural land (now scrub) dominate the CEZ and wildfires are an annual event. In April 2020, the CEZ suffered its most widespread fires to date when greater than 800 km2 of the 2600 km2 Ukrainian portion of the CEZ was burnt. Large‐scale fires in the CEZ have implications for wildlife, as they do elsewhere, but they also pose additional radioecological and radiological protection questions. We discuss the implications of wildfires in the CEZ, considering effects on wildlife and changes in radionuclide mobility. We also demonstrate that the risk to firefighters and the wider public from the inhalation of radionuclides in smoke resulting from fires in the CEZ is likely to be low. However, further experimental and modeling work to evaluate potential doses to firefighters from inhaled radioactive particles would be valuable, not least for reassurance purposes.