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Forest fires near Chernobyl nuclear plant under control, Ukraine authorities say

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In this photo taken from the roof of Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 10, 2020, a forest fire is seen burning near the plant inside the exclusion zone.
In this photo taken from the roof of Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 10, 2020, a forest fire is seen burning near the plant inside the exclusion zone.   -   Copyright  Ukrainian Police Press Office via AP
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Ukrainian authorities are playing down the danger posed by forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, saying they have been contained and are under full control.

Reports over the preceding 24 hours said the fires were raging close to the nuclear power plant, with activists warning the blazes were getting dangerously close to waste storage facilities.

But on Tuesday the authorities said a combination of efforts by firefighters, and rain showers covering much of the area, had neutered the threat.

"There is no open fire. There is a slight smouldering of the forest floor with separate cells," Ukraine's interior ministry said in a statement on its website, describing the situation as of 7 am on Tuesday.

"There is no threat to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, waste fuel storage or other critical facilities," said Volodymyr Demchuk of the country's state Emergencies Service.

The authorities also insisted that radiation levels in the capital Kyiv, about 100 kilometres south of the plant, were within norms.

"The level of radiation in Kyiv and the surrounding region does not exceed the natural level," said the interior ministry statement.

'Critical' situation as fires blazed

Earlier, the fire was said to have reached the abandoned city of Pripyat, and to be raging within a kilometre or two of the plant at Chernobyl, scene of the world's worst nuclear accident in April 1986, which spread a cloud of radiation over much of Europe.

"The situation is critical," a local official said on Facebook.

Rashid Alimov, senior nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace Russia, said satellite data showed that the fires were larger than official estimates. He said the flames could disperse radionuclides, or elements that emit radiation, into the air – posing a health risk for both firefighters and people living nearby.

“We hope that with the rains we can’t speak of immediate risks. But of course, any fires in the vicinity of such objects is a serious problem and we take such risks very seriously,” Alimov told Euronews Now.

As rumours circulated on social media over the level of radiation and risks to the nuclear plant, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – accused of inaction in recent days – promised to call in the head of the emergency services.

"Society has the right to know the truth and to be safe," he said.

Volodymyr Shuvayev / AFP
This aerial picture taken on April 12, 2020 shows a forest fire burning at a 30-kilometre Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, not far from the nuclear power plant.Volodymyr Shuvayev / AFP

The wildfires took hold on April 4 and have since spread, aided by strong winds and an unseasonal dry period.

Fires often break out in early spring as people set fire to dry grass, a widespread practice in some ex-Soviet nations. Officials say they have tracked down at least two people suspected of triggering fires.

The Chernobyl exclusion zone set up after the nuclear disaster is largely uninhabited, although about 200 people have remained in the area.

Last week residents from one village in the territory were moved from their homes by police, as wildfires brought a spike in radiation levels.

Volodymyr Shuvayev / AFP
A man walks at the scene of a forest fire at a 30-kilometer (19-mile) Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, not far from the nuclear power plant, on April 12, 2020.Volodymyr Shuvayev / AFP