Climate change is spreading radiation from Chernobyl over 2,000 miles away

One of the more difficult parts of trying to convince people about the seriousness of climate change is explaining how so many disparate elements and factors can collude and compound* and make everything worse. And it's even harder to predict how long those complications will take to manifest, whenever they do what they do.

Just look at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After three decades, the wildlife in the contaminated zone was thriving, and Ukraine announced plans to convert the land into a sustainable energy farm. All good news! Maybe things are looking up?

Or maybe not. As The Atlantic reports:

Monitors in Norway, 2,000 miles away, detected increased levels of cesium in the atmosphere. Kyiv was smothered in smoke [from forest fires]. Press reports estimated that the level of radiation near the fires was 16 times higher than normal, but we may never know how much was actually released: Yoschenko, Zibtsev, and others impatient to take on-the-ground measurements were confined to their homes by the coronavirus pandemic. August is typically the worst month of the Chernobyl fire season, and this year, public anxiety is mounting. The devastation left by the world's worst nuclear disaster is colliding with the disaster of climate change, and the consequences reach far and deep.


The unexpected result is an immense, long-term ecological laboratory. Within the exclusion zone, scientists are analyzing everything, including the health of the wolves and moose that have wandered back and the effects of radiation on barn swallows, voles, and the microorganisms that decompose forest litter. Now, as wildfires worsen, scientists are trying to determine how these hard-hit ecosystems will respond to yet another unparalleled disruption.

All forms of energy production come with some risk; and there's an argument to be made that nuclear isn't that bad in the grand scheme of things; and that it might be a more effective way to slow the effects of climate change at scale than to flip a switch and change over to all-renewables overnight. The problem is that, when something does wrong — which is still likely, because nothing's perfect — more nuclear power production will result in more radiation damage. And, if this situation with Chernobyl's forest fires is any indication, then the ultimate fallout of that combined with our existing climate change problems could be even more insurmountably devastating.

But then, if we don't do anything about climate change, we'll also be facing insurmountable disasters — just different.

Forest Fires Are Setting Chernobyl's Radiation Free [Jane Braxton Little / The Atlantic]

Image: Public Domain via National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

*This is, frustratingly, also what has allowed Climate Deniers to push the false narrative that "science had it wrong." In reality, the science has always been largely right, though not necessarily precise, because of that difficulty in calculating and predicting every single possible element that might influence the climate, and the way it changes. Even trying to factor in that "we don't know what we don't know" might lead some scientists to over-predict things out of caution; this, in turn, leads to some crazy Climate Denier crying "Chicken Little!" while the sky is, indeed, fucking falling, but maybe 0.0001% slower than one person said it might.