By Jane Braxton Little
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine – Most days Nikolay Ossienko patrols the forests surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, clearing brush and dead trees from the grid of fuel breaks that crisscross the 1,000-square-mile area. But on hot July afternoons, when black thunderheads loom on the horizon, he climbs a rusty ladder 75 feet up a rickety fire tower. When he spots smoke, he radios the six other towers to pinpoint the location, then trucks off to the blaze.
"Our number one job is to save the forest from fire," said Ossienko, a burly, blue-eyed Ukrainian whose warm smile winks with a missing tooth.
It’s a job with international consequences. For almost three decades the forests around the shuttered nuclear power plant have been absorbing contamination left from the 1986 reactor explosion. Now climate change and lack of management present a troubling predicament: If these forests burn, strontium 90, cesium 137, plutonium 238 and other radioactive elements would be released, according to an analysis of the human health impacts of wildfire in Chernobyl's exclusion zone conducted by scientists in Germany, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States. Read more here.