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(TMU) — A raging fire in the radioactive forest surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has raised alarms in Ukraine and is now threatening large deposits of radioactive waste from the 1986 nuclear disaster.
The wildfires, which are consuming the polluted forests in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, are feared to be moving toward the abandoned trucks, vehicles, and other material near the disaster site.
While fires occur somewhat regularly in the region, forest fires that began raging on April 4 around the infamous former site of the nuclear power plant at Pripyat are close to a mile (2 kilometers) from the reactors housing much of the nuclear material at the Chernobyl disaster zone, say officials.
Katerina Pavlova, who heads Ukraine’s State Agency for Management of the Exclusion Zone and has been involved in the firefighting, told the New York Times:
“We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire.
At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained.”
The faulty nuclear reactor near the city of Pripyat remains surrounded by 1,003 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) of restricted access, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Obligatory Resettlement. While the area is largely uninhabited, roughly 200 people have refused to vacate the area since the April 1986 disaster at the plant’s fourth nuclear reactor that produced a massive cloud of radioactive fallout that drifted over Europe.
Last Sunday, Yegor Firsov, the head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, said in a post to Facebook that radiation levels in the center of the fire were about 16 times higher than normal. In the post, he included video of a Geiger counter revealing the heightened radiation levels.
However, officials have taken pains to say that the newly released radioactive material isn’t enough to pose any danger to people in the region.
Firsov himself later withdrew his claims about the heightened radiation levels, claiming that manmade radionuclides weren’t detected at the site of the fire.
Russian news agency TASS reports that despite Ukrainian officials’ attempts to suppress the fire—which have included air drops of hundreds of tons of water using considerable air power—the fire continues to rage in a largely uncontrolled manner.
On Monday, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine said:
“By April 13, the Emergency Service Ministry, together with the forestry officers, continues to fight wildfires in the Korogodsky, Kotovsky and Denisovetsky forestries.”
The government service added that 366 people and 88 vehicles, “including three [Antonov] AN-32P planes and three helicopters that dropped 370 tons of water on April 12,” have been involved in the ongoing operation.
The service also said that radiation levels in the Ukrainian capital Kiev remain stable, adding that the radiation levels on the ground and radionuclide content in the water “does not exceed allowed limits.”
Yet it is feared that the situation could considerably worsen if the flames reach Chernobyl’s four nuclear reactors.
The fire in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone began on April 4 and was allegedly started by a 27-year-old resident of Kiev. On Friday, police in the Kiev region announced that criminal proceedings had begun against the suspect.