Chernobyl Wildfires Could Spread Radioactive Particles
Firefighters are battling to contain larger-than-usual wildfires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as radiation levels spike at their center.
The fires, which started April 3 in the west of the zone, then spread to forests in the area with higher radiation levels, Reuters reported. High winds Saturday risked pushing the blaze towards the abandoned plant and equipment used to clean up the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, acting leader of the agency that manages the area Kateryna Pavlova told The New York Times.
"We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire," Pavlova said.
The wind had been blowing the smoke towards rural parts of Russia and Belarus most of the week, but shifted Friday towards the Ukranian capital of Kyiv, home to around three million people. However, authorities said the radiation levels in the city remained normal. Contaminated smoke was expected to reach Kyiv over the weekend, but authorities said radiation levels in the air once the smoke had dispersed would be safe.
The risk posed by the fires is that people might inhale radioactive particles with the smoke.
"Wind can raise hot particles in the air together with the ash and blow it toward populated areas," air pollution expert with environmental group Ecodiya Olena Miskun told The New York Times.
However, Ukraine is currently on lockdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and Miskun said this was an unexpected blessing.
"We are lucky to have quarantine measures in place now," she said. "People stay at home, walk less and wear masks."
The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in April 1986 was the worst nuclear accident in history, Reuters explained. Afterwards, people were evacuated from a 19-mile exclusion zone around the plant that is tightly controlled to this day.
Wildfires are common in the exclusion zone, but these are unusually large and follow a warm, dry winter, The New York Times reported. As of Saturday, they had consumed more than 8,600 acres and required the work of around 400 firefighters, 100 fire engines and several helicopters.
"At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained," Pavlova told The New York Times.
The climate crisis is increasing wildfire risk in the area, Gizmodo pointed out, as it raises temperatures and ups the chance of drought. A 2014 paper published in Environmental International said the region saw around 54 fires in the contaminated area in 2010 and 300 elsewhere, and warned that future fires that covered 10 to 100 percent of the contaminated zone could send "significant amounts" of radiation to communities in Eastern and Central Europe.
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Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab says he believes Tuesday's explosion in Beirut could have been caused by large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in the port.
What Is Ammonium Nitrate?<p>Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt that can be fairly cheaply produced from ammonia and nitric acid. It is soluble and often used as fertilizer, as nitrogen is needed for healthy plant development.</p><p>Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which in turn changes its chemical properties.</p><p>When large quantities of ammonium nitrate are stored in one place, heat is generated. If the amount is sufficiently vast, it can cause the chemical to ignite. Once a temperature of 170 C is reached, ammonium nitrate starts breaking down, emitting nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Any sudden ignition causes ammonium nitrate to decompose directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.</p>
Deadly Disasters<p>As ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical, many countries strictly regulate its use. Over the past 100 years, there have been several disasters involving the chemical.</p><p>In 1921, for example, a massive blast occurred at a BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. About 400 metric tons of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 559 people and injuring 1,977. The plant was largely destroyed in the blast, which could be heard as far away as Munich, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) distant.</p><p>In 2015, explosions caused by ammonium nitrate ripped through the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/china-convicts-dozens-for-last-years-giant-explosions-in-tianjin/a-36324321" target="_blank">Chinese port city of Tianjin</a>. Eight hundred metric tons of the chemical were said to have been stored along with other substances in a warehouse for hazardous materials. The blasts killed 173 people and destroyed an entire city district.</p><p>Two years earlier, in 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company site in Texas, killing 14 people. And in 2001, 31 people died in Toulouse, France, in an explosion caused by the chemical.</p>
Terrorist Favorite<p>In Germany, the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate is regulated by the explosives act. This is because the cheap, highly explosive and relatively easily obtainable material has in the past been used by terrorists to carry out attacks.</p><p>For example, in 1995, U.S. conspiracy theorist and gun enthusiast Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and other substances to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik also used ammonium nitrate in a car bomb attack in Oslo in 2011.</p>
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