A major forest fire broke out Tuesday close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, threatening to release alarming levels of radiation across the country. Up to 200 firefighters, supported by trucks and aircraft, have been dispatched to deal with the blaze.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that about 400 hectares of forest around the exclusion zone was engulfed in the flames, BBC reported. Avakov added that authorities suspected the fire was deliberately started, and were tightening security around the exclusion zone.
"There is a reasonable suspicion of an arson attack, as there were outbreaks of the fire in several places on both sides of the river," he reportedly said.
Chernobyl spokeswoman Maya Rudenko told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that there was no immediate threat to the heavily contaminated nuclear plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 accident. Footage filmed from a helicopter deployed over the area showed an abandoned village near the reactor in flames and plumes of smoke in the sky.
Officials said the level of background radiation in the area had not yet been affected by the fire. In 1986, a 10-day fire after the Chernobyl accident sent massive amounts of radioactive material into the surrounding area and over swathes of Europe. Tuesday’s incident comes just two days after the twenty-ninth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
"I have been informed that the situation is normal," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters after meeting response teams, AFP reported. "Our emergency services are actively working to stop the fire from spreading."
However, he admitted that Ukraine was severely underequipped to tackle a disaster of this magnitude. "We need to have at least 12 helicopters for the Ukrainian State Emergency Service, but we only have two," he said.
After the 1986 disaster, the reactor was hastily enclosed within a concrete “sarcophagus,” which is now degrading and must be replaced. Authorities have planned a new steel enclosure to replace it, which will weigh 20,000 tons and is estimated to cost over $2.2 billion.